Make no mistake: Current “regulatory reform” efforts in Pennsylvania could threaten vital environmental protections

pollution from a smokestack

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Healthy air, clean drinking water and pollution-free lakes and rivers are, unsurprisingly, broadly supported priorities across Pennsylvania. Environmental regulations are put in place to protect these very priorities – to safeguard the health of Pennsylvania communities and their environment from toxic pollutants and other damages. While much more progress is needed, new regulations can help address a myriad of environmental challenges, like the recently finalized rule setting limits for two types of toxic PFAS substances, known as “forever chemicals,” which will help address Pennsylvania’s widespread PFAS drinking water contamination.

It is well-established that the benefits of environmental protections to human health and the economy are significant. Looking at federal clean air protections, a comprehensive US EPA analysis projected that the benefits of the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments, which cut a variety of air pollutants across sectors, exceed the costs of meeting the standards by a factor of 30 to 1. The study valued the benefits at $2 trillion in 2020 alone, including from the prevention of 230,000 unnecessary deaths. Additionally, an analysis by NRDC found that the monetized health benefits of the Clean Air Act were $160-320 billion in 2020 in Pennsylvania.

But once again, some legislators are debating how to curtail expert agencies’ ability to put forth regulations that protect Pennsylvanians. This time, they are considering a dangerous amendment to the Pennsylvania Constitution that would shift the balance of power toward polluters and powerful companies and away from experts, the public and stakeholders who help inform their development. This could impact environmental protections in addition to protections designed to support and protect labor, consumers, childcare centers, health care providers, schools, and more.

How environmental protections are established in Pennsylvania

Regulatory reform efforts exaggerate claims of a broken system. To be clear, these legislative efforts for reform tend to be designed to provide benefits for major, multi-million-dollar companies, not small mom-and-pop shops or the general public. Environmental regulation of major water and air polluters is often a target of these regulatory reform efforts, even though every environmental regulation adopted in Pennsylvania:

1) is anchored in legal authority already granted to it by both legislative chambers in recognition of the critical and bipartisan priority to ensure clean air, water, and land;

2) undergoes an extensive and lengthy public  and regulatory review process with stakeholders and affected parties before going into effect;

3) is subject to legal, economic, and other analysis and scrutiny across multiple agencies, including examination of the impact on the sector being regulated, small businesses, consumers, and more;

4) includes a public comment period and public hearings where anyone can provide feedback and comments on the proposed version of the rule;

5) is approved by a board of experts, that includes members of regulated industries, community stakeholders, and legislators.

It typically takes multiple years to adopt an environmental regulation in Pennsylvania and there are numerous input opportunities to help ensure all interests are treated fairly. Environmental protections promote the environmental and health interests of families, communities, and businesses, and they help ensure these interests are not harmed by the actions of others that would contaminate the air or water.

Pennsylvanians’ health is at stake

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is required to develop protections for water and air pursuant to the law. Protections exist addressing lead in water, toxic soot and smog in the air, sewage treatment and overflow, contaminated land, and more. Without these protections, health, economic, and other costs are put squarely on the shoulders of Pennsylvanians, who would have to shoulder the financial burden of rectifying issues on their properties, may have to take more trips to the ER for asthma attacks, miss work or school days due to poor air quality, or have reduced use of natural resources like lakes or rivers contaminated by dangerous pollutants.

Polluters have opposed many environmental protections for air and water pollution. Some would rather have the regulatory process upended by the legislature so they can pick and choose which air and water rules they want to follow, instead of actually doing the work to clean up. We need look no further than to the recent report by the DEP that the natural gas industry would rather illegally abandon their oil and gas wells than follow the plugging guidelines placed by the DEP. The report found that there are 3000 newly abandoned wells across the Commonwealth and these wells are actively leaking dangerous air pollution that harms our water, air, and accelerate climate change.

Children are particularly vulnerable to many types of air and water pollution and hamstringing the DEP’s ability to set protections for them is unconscionable. Federal and state environmental protections enjoy strong majority support in Pennsylvania – things like limits on mercury pollution that harms fetuses, lead that damages children’s brains, and other protections tend to enjoy 80-90% support in poll after poll.

Pennsylvania was recently named the most deadly state for soot air pollution with the highest rates of premature deaths per resident. Pennsylvania also has some of the highest polluting sectors in the nation, including the third dirtiest power sector in terms of carbon dioxide pollution. And when it comes to Pennsylvania’s water,1 in 3 Pennsylvania drinking water systems exceed EPA’s new limits regulating “forever chemicals,” while a report from DEP shows that 33% of Pennsylvania’s waterways are polluted.

Despite all this, it is startling that we continue to see some legislators oppose environmental protections.

Numerous, common-sense environmental regulations have been adopted in recent years that help deliver much needed protections for Pennsylvanians. Rules adopted include measures that better protect drinking water from contaminants like PFAS, test drinking water for lead and copper, manage radiological contaminants, greater controls for oil and gas well siting, and to curb carbon pollution from power plants. These rules will provide significant benefits to public health and the environment and are just a small cross-section of the types of protections routinely delivered by the DEP.

Proposals under consideration fail to protect Pennsylvanians

EDF is not opposed to updating the regulatory process, so long as such efforts meet the paramount goal of ensuring agencies can fully protect communities from harm. However, efforts under consideration by the legislature, including trying to amend the state constitution to disrupt the balance of power and grant themselves even more authority to strike down environmental protections, fail to actually deliver any benefits to Pennsylvanians.

The constitutional amendment and other legislative proposals to change the regulatory process will ultimately benefit special interests, letting them choose which regulations to comply with while leaving children, workers, and communities in Pennsylvania without secure pathways for regulations that help protect them from harm.

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