Lawmaker: Environmental group taking money to line pockets

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HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) – A group of state legislators is accusing an environmental group of hiking fees to municipalities to line its own pockets, and they want the state to cut funding to the Susquehanna River Basin Commission.

A group of Republican lawmakers held a meeting with the Department of Environmental Protection and representatives of local municipalities Wednesday to discuss the possibility of reigning in the commission.

“Right now, they are beyond unreasonable,” Rep. Dan Moul (R-Adams) said Thursday. “These people are building themselves an empire on the backs of the ratepayers.”

Moul said the SRBC gets some state money — not much — but aren’t under legislative control or other oversight beyond their own.

“They kind of run wild with themselves as to what they want to do, what they want to charge, and they need some oversight,” he said.

The legislative group that includes Moul and at least eight other lawmakers or their proxies are not worried about the Susquehanna itself or its tributaries; they say the SRBC’s permits and fees for municipal wells are the problem.

The group regulates quantity, not quality of water, so they’re concerned with how much a well can produce before it’s drilled and while it’s in operation.

“Almost an insurance policy that communities have knowing that their residences and their businesses and industries will have the water they need in times of drought,” said Andrew Dehoff, the SRBC’s executive director.

Moul said growing fees for permits, testing, and constant monitoring are too high for some municipalities.

Shrewsbury Borough is among those affected. Council president Richard Buchanan spoke at Wednesday’s meeting, presenting a four-page list of grievances against the SRBC.

The borough spent $141,546 in direct and indirect costs to renew permits on two municipal wells in the last three years, according to documents Buchanan prepared for the meeting.

That includes permit and legal fees, engineering and hydrologists fees, well drillers, and borough employee compensation, among other costs, he said. The borough has raised water rates three times in seven years to pay for it.

“We’ve created a public water supply assistance program for small municipalities that offers technical assistance in filling out their permits and in meeting post-approval conditions,” Dehoff said.

Municipalities can get discounts, he said, for things like testing fees to determine how much water can be safely drawn from a well without depleting it too quickly.

“We have up to 40 percent discounts for municipalities,” he said.

As for continued monitoring fees for municipal wells, Dehoff said, “The annual fee is – we consider to be minor and we have instituted discounts on that fee.”

He said such expenses are a “wise investment of public resources” given that so many people rely on the wells that serve those municipalities.

Dehoff also said they’ve heard the concerns from local governments and are working to address them further.

Moul and the other lawmakers argued all the money the SRBC is pulling in goes to higher salaries for executives and that the agency has upwards of $30 million sitting in the bank already.

The money in that account, Dehoff said, comes from high water users like power plants and goes to a separate fund reserved to keep water flowing in times of drought.

“These people are building themselves an empire on the backs of the ratepayers,” Moul said. “We don’t mind some oversight. They’re out of control.”

The SRBC, set up decades ago to regulate water flows in the entire basin spanning multiple states, gets less than $500,000 in state funding (out of a $30-billion-plus state budget).

Moul said he’s prepared to eliminate that money as “shot across the bow” to put the agency on notice. Dehoff said losing the funding would impact some programs, but it wouldn’t be a major loss.

“It is a racket, no doubt about it,” Moul said.

The lawmaker made clear the SRBC isn’t breaking any laws — and that’s the problem, he said – the law should never have been written to let them do what they’re doing.

He said his message to the DEP secretary was clear: “If you don’t address this problem, we will do it legislatively, and this will get ugly.”

DEP acting secretary Patrick McDonnell, who was in that meeting, said through a department spokesman that it was “a good meeting with useful feedback from municipalities” and they’ll work with all parties “to best meet everyone’s needs.”Get breaking news, weather and traffic on the go. Download our News App and our Weather App for your phone and tablet.

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