Pennsylvania Offers Blueprint for Environmental Protection

Published February 1, 2003

Can state governments protect the environment without relying on command-and-control regulation? Do public-private ventures and voluntary programs really work? Can a Republican governor set a standard for excellence in environmental protection that other states can learn from?

For the past eight years, Pennsylvania has delivered a resounding “yes” to all those questions. How it achieved such impressive results is a blueprint for the chief executive officers of the country’s 49 other states.

Impressive Achievements

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) was a magnet for criticism and a liability to whoever sat in the Governor’s office. While the department’s mission was as popular as ever, nobody seemed to think it was doing a good job. That, demanded Gov. Tom Ridge, had to change.

And change the department did, thanks to hard work, a new philosophy, and many new partners.

Solid waste, air pollution, and water pollution have been permanently reduced by hundreds of millions of tons and billions of gallons; millions of pounds of toxic emissions have been eliminated. More than 33,300 acres of abandoned mines have been reclaimed, 967 miles of stream cleaned up, and 5,000 acres of wetlands restored. The state even exceeded its goal of recycling 35 percent of household waste.

Although Pennsylvania still employs many of the traditional means of enforcing environmental protection laws, the key to the state’s recent success has been its increasing willingness to partner with municipalities, private citizens, and private businesses.

Growing Greener

The “Growing Greener” program Ridge signed into law in December 1999 is the largest single environmental investment in Pennsylvania’s history–nearly $650 million over five years–aimed at preserving open space and farmland, reclaiming abandoned mines, restoring watersheds, supporting local recreation projects, eliminating the backlog of maintenance projects in state parks and forests, and upgrading water and sewer systems.

In June 2002 Gov. Mark Schweiker signed legislation extending the program through 2012 and doubling its funding to $1.2 billion.

The program was based on recommendations made in 1998 by the Governor’s 21st Century Environment Commission, which urged communities and watershed groups be given financial and technical help to solve environmental problems at the watershed level.

Growing Greener also included a special “good Samaritan” provision that removes environmental liability for persons who voluntarily reclaim abandoned mines or plug abandoned oil and gas wells and who have no responsibility for the original problem.

The “good Samaritan” provision was just one of dozens of recommendations made through the Governor’s Reclaim PA initiative to encourage voluntary and industry-led efforts to reclaim abandoned mines and plug oil and gas wells.

The Growing Greener Program is the largest state program of its kind in the nation devoted to addressing nonpoint source pollution, which is responsible for 96 percent of the water quality impairment in Pennsylvania.

eFACTS (Electronic Environmental Reporting)

One of DEP’s most advanced technological and administrative innovations is eFACTS (the Environment, Facility, Application, Compliance Tracking System). eFACTS brings together in one place program-specific information on individual sites regulated by DEP.

Using eFACTS, citizens, plant managers, bankers, consultants, and lawyers can see the results of the inspection DEP performs at a facility, the status of any past enforcement or compliance actions, and the status of any pending permit applications. eFACTS can be searched by name of facility or geographically to locate facilities with DEP permits within counties or towns.

The system marks a significant paradigm shift, from the traditional focus on “enforcement only” to the more comprehensive issue of compliance. Using Internet technologies and a vast inspection/enforcement database, more information is now made available to the public regarding compliance, violations, and overall environmental performance of companies throughout the Commonwealth.

eFACTS is the first program of its kind in the world. It won a 1999 Council of State Governments Innovations Award.

Money-Back Guarantee Permit Review

In 1995 Gov. Ridge established by executive order the Money-Back Guarantee Permit Review Program, requiring that DEP make permit decisions by specific deadlines … or return the applicants’ permit application fee.

The program brought on-time decision-making by the agency and helped eliminate a serious backlog of permit applications–all without shortchanging the opportunity for public review and comment.

Zero Pollution Goal

In 1995 DEP created the Office of Pollution Prevention and Compliance Assistance at a deputy secretary level to assist communities and companies in meeting regulatory requirements and encourage them to go beyond merely complying with the law. As part of this effort, Pennsylvania adopted a “zero pollution” management goal for the first time.

DEP now assists hundreds of companies and communities in reducing pollution and compliance costs while sharing cutting-edge technologies among businesses through a newly formed Pennsylvania Environmental Assistance Network and other partners.

DEP also succeeded in creating grant and loan programs to help businesses audit their operations to identify pollution prevention opportunities and install pollution prevention and energy efficiency technologies.

One important part of this strategy was creating the Governor’s Award for Environmental Excellence, which annually recognize the environmental accomplishments of individuals, businesses, local governments, and community organizations.

Since 1995, Pennsylvania’s pollution prevention programs and the winners of the Governor’s Environmental Excellence Awards have saved companies more than $1 billion in operating costs, reduced water use by more than 7.3 billion gallons, eliminated 173 million tons of waste, reduced air pollution by 134 million tons, eliminated 732 million Btus of energy use, and educated more than 181,000 people on how to prevent pollution.

Effective Public Participation

In August 1996, DEP issued a new Public Participation Policy to require agency programs to involve the public in a meaningful way and early in the process of developing new policies and regulations with input from affected parties, the public, and other stakeholders.

Traditionally, environmental regulations have been the result of “decide and defend” strategies by government agencies, instead of allowing true public participation in the regulatory process. The Public Participation Policy has changed that. Agencies now listen to affected parties rather than dictate to them.

In 2000, the Washington, DC-based environmental group Resources for the Future ranked the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection first among states for promoting effective public participation in its environmental programs, using the Internet and other tools as part of its Electronic Democracy Project.

DEP’s adoption of the eNOTICE citizen notification service revolutionized the way a government agency invites the public to participate in its decision-making. Individuals can create a password-protected account and ask to be notified by email when a permit application is submitted from someone in their county, township, borough, or city. They also can track individual permits through the permit review process and be notified at significant milestones, such as when public comment periods open and close. Recommended by DEP’s Environmental Justice Work Group, eNOTICE has been called “the first major improvement in the way government informs its citizens since agencies began posting notices in the town square.” The Council of State Governments gave eNOTICE its 2002 Innovations Award.

A Model for Other States

“Thousands of people and communities all across Pennsylvania have new hope because of the partnerships built by the Ridge and Schweiker administrations to achieve the goal we all share–to restore and protect our environment,” said David Hess, Secretary for Environmental Protection.

“We’ve created an approach to protecting the environment that emphasizes the involvement of stakeholders from all sides of issues, building partnerships, sharing information, and promoting education to achieve measurable improvements in the environment,” summarized Hess.

“In 1995 we were challenged to create the most advanced partnership in the nation to protect and enhance our resources and to restore Pennsylvania’s place as a national leader in protecting the environment. We met that test and positioned Pennsylvania to achieve even more in the future because we have even more ambitious goals to achieve.”

The numbers don’t lie. Pennsylvania serves as a model for other states to follow in the years to come.

James M. Taylor is managing editor of Environment & Climate News.

For more information …

contact the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, Rachel Carson State Office Building – 14th Floor, P.O. Box 2063, Harrisburg, PA 17105-2063; phone 717/787-2814. Secretary David Hess can be reached by email at [email protected]. Visit its Web site at