The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Local News

August 28, 2013

Bill seeks to relax environmental regulations

Burns among co-sponsors in House

POTTSVILLE — State Rep. Jeffrey Pyle, R-Indiana, was outraged when a local school had to waste time and money responding to fruitless worries that a construction project would harm endangered wildlife.

So Pyle wrote a bill aimed at going after environmental regulators he feels are too powerful and too unaccountable for the actions.

“For some reason, someone decided we had to spend extra money to protect (wild animals) that aren’t there,” Pyle said at a public hearing in Pottsville on Monday.

His bill has gotten plenty of support in the Legislature and in the business community, where lobbying organizations are lining up to fight for wholesale changes to the way Pennsylvania determines what an endangered species is.

Sixty-eight members of the 153-member House of Representatives signed on as co-sponsors of the bill, including lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

Democratic co-sponsors include Rep. Frank Burns of East Taylor Township.

An identical version of the bill was introduced in the state Senate by President Pro Tem Joseph Scarnati, R-Jefferson.

Pyle and other promoters of the legislation say it is chiefly aimed at demanding that the state’s Fish and Boat Commission and Game Commission publicly explain how and why they determined an animal is threatened in Pennsylvania generally or in a particular part of the state.

“Show your proof,” Pyle said. “Right now, we don’t have that.”

Pyle’s sentiments were echoed by George Ellis, president of the Pennsylvania Coal Alliance, who said the coal industry was caught flat-footed when the Fish and Boat Commission announced that 96 streams were being protected because of the large number of trout in them. With only 30 days to respond, the coal operators were unable to organize their objections before the public comment period expired, Ellis said in an interview Monday.

But opponents said that the bill will bring politics into decisions about endangered wildlife and that the bill does too much to defang the environmental regulators.

By stripping the Fish and Boat Commission and Game Commission of ultimate authority, the bill could also cost them $27 million in federal funding for protecting endangered wildlife, John Organ, chief of the division of wildlife and sport fish restoration at the federal Fish and Wildlife Service, warned in a letter to the state agencies earlier this month.

John Arway, executive director of the Fish and Boat Commission, said that the bill could effectively eliminate the state’s endangered wildlife list. Animals identified as endangered in Pennsylvania may exist in healthy populations in other parts of the country, but are so rare here that regulators fear they could disappear. Animals on the federal endangered species list are considered endangered nationally, but may exist in healthy numbers in a particular state.

The bill states that any animal is only endangered if it’s threatened throughout “its range” rather than in the commonwealth. There are at least 10 species that would lose protection by this change, according to the Fish and Boat Commission's analysis.

In some ways, the conflict has been intensified by the growth of the natural gas industry, Arway said.

Arway said his regulators have made a concentrated effort to identify valuable trout streams in response to lobbying from gas companies. The gas industry got burned on occasions when drillers sought permits in areas only to have regulators then announce that the waterways were environmentally significant. So, the Fish and Boat Commission launched an effort to document valuable trout streams before anyone begins trying to develop around them, Arway said. In many cases, these were waterways that scientists suspected had trout in them, but they were in rural areas where there wasn’t much environmental threat. However, the expansion of gas drilling has created development pressure in even the most isolated corners of the state, he said.

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