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Federal Government Shutdown Slows Process For Construction Permits In PA

Emily Cohen
The Mariner East 2 pipeline has officially broken ground in the Delaware County town of Aston. The beginning stages of the pipeline includes clear cutting trees and preparing makeshift roads for the heavy machinery to traverse.

The partial federal government shutdown is slowing the approval process for construction permits and several other environmental-related issues, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection.

So far, the impacts have not been significant, as the shutdown stretches into its 33rd day. The winter season is typically a slower time for permit applications.

"DEP gets a lot of criticism for not processing permits fast enough from the business community," agency spokesman Neil Shader said. "We've done a lot of work to streamline our activities, while still protecting the environment, and now this government shutdown is undercutting the work we could have done."

Kevin Sunday, director of government affairs for the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, said he has not heard from any member companies reporting a slowdown in permitting, and he credits Gov. Tom Wolf's administration and the DEP for previously making improvements to the process.

"We continue to encourage them to take more steps to reform the regulatory and permitting process, which has been identified by state House and Senate leaders as a priority for this session,"Sunday said.

Day-to-day inspections have not been affected by the shutdown yet, Shader said, because DEP already has delegated authority from the federal government over many aspects of environmental enforcement, such as clean drinking water inspections and air quality.

Apart from the permitting issues, Shader said the agency is still awaiting EPA guidance on managing PFAS contamination in drinking water. The chemicals -- used in nonstick cookware and fire-fighting foam -- have been linked to illnesses, including cancer. There is uncertainly around how exactly they affect human health and at what doses. The EPA had planned to release a proposal to regulate the chemicals late last year, but that's been delayed by the shutdown. 

Federal grants are also being affected by the federal government's partial shutdown. Shader said the Hazardous Waste, Leaking Underground Storage, and the Clean Diesel grants have all been suspended, and reviews are not occurring. EPA has also stopped funding existing grants. Expenses for those will be paid with state funds, when available, until the EPA releases funding.

He added that IT systems for EPA and the Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation, and Enforcement (OSMRE) are either offline or experiencing problems, but that DEP staff has found temporary workarounds.

Work on several Superfund sites in Pennsylvania, which are under the direct jurisdiction of the EPA, has also been halted. Progress on abandoned mine land reclamation and restoration is on hold as OSMRE cannot authorize requests to proceed from DEP.

This story is produced in partnership with StateImpact Pennsylvania, a collaboration among WESA, The Allegheny Front, WITF and WHYY.