Lawmakers question state’s capacity to take on water quality plan

Photo Courtesy: MGNonline

BOSTON (STATE HOUSE) – Baker administration officials tangled with legislative Democrats on Tuesday at a hearing on the administration’s proposal for the state to assume from the federal government the responsibility to administer the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES).

Among the concerns of the eight Democrats who attended the Environment Committee hearing Tuesday — the committee’s three Republicans were not present for the administration’s testimony — were that the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) already has enough on its plate, and that DEP oversight may be less stringent than the federal government.

But Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs Matthew Beaton and DEP Commissioner Martin Suuberg said the bill (H 4254) filed by Gov. Charlie Baker would allow for a smoother local permitting process, for DEP to incorporate the NPDES program into a “holistic view” of the other water programs it already runs, and for a reduced bureaucracy.

“The Baker-Polito administration believes this is good policy, as the legislation will ensure Massachusetts has an active, hands-on role in administering an important water quality protection program,” Beaton said.

The governor’s proposal is supported by the Massachusetts Municipal Association, which said in a statement it is “confident that this integrated enforcement approach will deliver stronger results for the environment with less bureaucracy, and will provide greater responsiveness to all communities and stakeholders.”

States have the option to apply to administer the NPDES program, which regulates public and private discharges, under federal oversight at the state level, and Massachusetts is one of four states that has not yet requested “delegation.”

“I think we have to ask ourselves, if this is not the right thing to do for the commonwealth, well then did 46 other states get it wrong? Because 46 other states thought that this was the right thing to do for their state,” Beaton said.

Considering the state’s history “in being a leader protecting our environment and the great work that DEP does … It’s hard not to get yourself to a place that recognizes that this is the right thing for the commonwealth to do,” he said.

But the Democrats on the Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture expressed worry that DEP might be biting off more than it can chew.

Sen. Jamie Eldridge cited an investigation by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting which reported a 29 percent budget cut for DEP since 2001 when adjusted for inflation and the loss of about 100 DEP employees through an early retirement program as reasons to question whether DEP has the resources it needs to fulfill its current obligations.

Eldridge also pointed out a grade of C given last month by six groups including the Environmental League of Massachusetts to Baker’s energy and environmental affairs arm for its performance during the governor’s first year in office.

“I think the concern is that this is being done in a way that will make it very difficult for the DEP to meet the federal standards of the EPA,” Eldridge, an Acton Democrat, said.

Eldridge also raised concerns that some Water Management Act Program permits have not yet been approved, leading committee co-chair Rep. Paul Schmid to offer a lesson from his youthful days on his family’s farm.

“My late father had to endure me on the farm coming up with lots of new ideas. I would say, ‘dad, it’s time to go and hay that alfalfa field.’ and he would always say, ‘Paul, why don’t you finish the field that you’re working on right now and then move on.’,” Schmid, a businessman and farmer from Westport, said.

He then asked Beaton and Suuberg, “Would you have any willingness to enter into a conversation about a schedule for taking care of the backlog that exists in some areas at a time that you’re moving into a new area?”

Suuberg told Schmid he is confident DEP can “make progress on both of these areas.” He later told the News Service that Schmid was “talking about one particular program, one particular set of permits” that are not yet beyond the 180-day permitting process.

Beaton refuted the assertion that there is a backlog of permits at DEP.

“The notion of a backlog I think is not true and that’s seen in the data that we have,” he told the News Service. “Over 96 percent of the permits that come in are turned around within their 180-day timeframe requirement.”

If the governor’s bill advances from the committee and passes the Legislature, it would be part of a submission MassDEP makes to the Environmental Protection Agency, according to Baker’s office. The state will be required to demonstrate an effective plan for managing the program, sufficient legal authority to meet federal requirements, and a plan for funding.

Beaton and Suuberg said the bill carries a budget commitment of $4.7 million annually “for staff, programming and up-to-date monitoring and analysis of water quality data.”

Though Tuesday’s hearing was Democrats versus appointees of a Republican governor, the issue does not appear to be purely partisan. In a press release announcing the filing of the bill, Baker’s office quoted two House Democrats — Reps. John Fernandes and Jeffrey Roy — in support of the governor’s bill.

Copyright 2016 State House News Service

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