HARRISBURG — The Department of Environmental Protection will accept public input through Monday for its pending policy revision about just that — public input.
The policy, last updated in 2005, sets guidelines for how to conduct meetings and hearings and encourages industry operators to inform the communities they propose to enter using a DEP-provided public outreach checklist.
If a community is vocal enough about its disdain for a proposed project or enough members have a valid reason to speak up, the department may use discretion to decide if a public hearing is warranted, said Colleen Connolly, the department’s Northeast regional office spokeswoman.
Not directly related to the policy update, gas companies are seeking permits for compressor stations and dehydration stations using the General Permit application, which does not require a public hearing, Connolly said. They are using this type of permit instead of the new GP-5, which was designed specifically for these types of gas projects and pays special attention to air emissions.
The General Permit calls for a 45-day comment period, but the GP-5 permit requires a public hearing from the the department’s air quality bureau, according to Amanda Witman, a DEP press aide in Harrisburg.
It’s important to note that these projects must also get approval from county or municipal zoning offices that might call for their own public hearings, but some say the general permit option threatens the way community members get involved with the permit approval process.
A DEP hearing adds a second layer of protection for the community and additional scrutiny for the applying company, said Eileen Cipriani, West Pittston Borough council chairwoman.
Cipriani led the borough’s charge earlier this year to stop a natural gas compressor station from being constructed by UGI Energy Services inside the borough. UGI officials dropped their permit application before it reached state review when it was before the Luzerne County Planning Commission.
“Still, at the end of the day, even if they got local zoning, they would still need the permit from DEP,” Cipriani said. “We would certainly like the public to weigh in on the public hearing process.”
Regardless of a public hearing, language in the policy update encourages the members of the public to speak out about permit applications.
Connolly said written opinions are better because they can best be documented in their original state. Concerns about permit applications should be directed to the department’s office of Environmental Advocate.
Permit applications must be advertised in general-circulation newspapers and in the department’s weekly “Pennsylvania Bulletin.” If a public hearing is called for by significant public concern and the department’s discretion, the hearing must be advertised at least two weeks prior to its scheduled date, according to the guideline.