Bill close to shifting environmental committees’ power | ParkRecord.com

Bill close to shifting environmental committees’ power

Gina Barker, The Park Record

State legislators are edging closer to finalizing a bill that would change how boards under the Utah Department of Environmental Quality which are currently responsible for permitting and rulemaking on environmental issues will operate. Senate Bill 21 revises board responsibilities and makeup by removing their ability to vote on permit appeals, a move the bill’s sponsors say will eliminate conflicts of interest, and limit the number of board members serving.

While some legislators and industry leaders claim the bill works to correct decades of defunct operating procedures, opponents of the bill believe the move will cut off boards’ abilities to regulate business practices that affect the environment.

"We believe the bill results in a more streamlined process," said Department of Environmental Quality Deputy Director Brad Johnson. "This bill keeps boards focused on policymaking by taking away the current adjudicative process. … They’re not legislators, but a rulemaking authority."

From the Energy Solutions Center blended waste debate to Kennecott Copper expansions, boards are responsible for issuing permits for businesses to develop and expand in environmentally conscious ways. The five boards oversee air quality, drinking water, radiation control, solid and hazardous waste control and water quality, all of which help ensure public health and state and federal regulation standards are met. The boards are made up of industry officials, local politicians and members of the general public.

Under S.B. 21 all five boards which currently range from 11 to 13 members, would be set at a total of nine members, and the final power to issue permits would go to a single source, the standing director of the DEQ.

"We are trying to circle the wagons, to get consistent," said House sponsor, Bill Wright (R-Holden). "We want [members] who will benefit the board with their expertise as far as the rulemaking process and what’s happening in the state. Secondly, this bill will be able to provide some consistency with the way we give permits."

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The bill was written by two Utah industry groups, the Utah Manufacturers Association and the Utah Mining Association. Utah Manufacturers Association President Tom Bingham approached Sen. Margaret Dayton (R-Orem) last year to find legislative support in restructuring the boards and first introduced the legislation last summer to an interim committee.

"Over the years, the boards have morphed out of shape through a hodgepodge of amendments," Bingham said. "It just became a battle on who could have the most representation for their particular interest."

Bingham’s organization decided to help write the 194-page bill after businesses with permits on the line approached him.

"Time is money, and if someone gets bogged down trying to get permits approved it’s a problem," he said.

Debate over altering the boards heated as the legislation made its way through the State Senate and House. Rep. Joel Briscoe (D-Salt Lake City) voted against the bill since it reached the interim committee he sat on and attempted to amend the bill’s new permit process before it passed in the house.

"Right now, boards have the power in making decisions on permits," Briscoe said. "They are allowed to speak to people freely, to be able to receive more public input."

The failed amendment would have shifted the power to issue permits to independent attorneys, a move he said he hoped would have quelled concerns that board members voted to issue permits on projects that created conflicts of interest while keeping the decision out of a single person’s control.

"Public input seems to be reduced by the legislation," Briscoe said.

"We’re restricting public access and depending on industry representatives," he added.

Though restructuring board membership has met opposition over how it would remove members who represent the general public, the larger concern among the bill’s critics is the permitting process that cuts out boards entirely. While rulemaking would still fall under board duties, permitting would go strictly to the DEQ director.

"I think it’s overreaching the director’s authority and cutting out the public," said Park City local and former Utah Radiation Control board member Patrick Cone. "It’s just disappointing that they appoint people on these boards who have proven they work well together. Then, they don’t trust us to do the right thing.

"In the end, I think this is going to jeopardize public health."

Joan Card, who works for Park City and is a current member of the Radiation Control Board, had a more mixed take on the bill.

"I understand people who are concerned that this bill is limiting or reducing input from environmental organizations and the general public," Card said, "but I also understand the efficiency argument.

"It’s perfectly within legislature’s purview to make these policies," she said, "and if people are concerned, they need to let their representative know. This type of policy is not uncommon across the country."

Most recently, S.B. 21 passed the House Floor at 52-18 with amendments, and is awaiting final Senate approval. To contact your legislator visit http://www.utahsenate.org for Senate representatives and http://le.utah.gov/house2/ for House representatives.

How permits work:

NOW

Business submits request for permit

DEQ division considers request

DEQ executive secretary approves or denies request

If denied, the business may appeal decision

Appeal submitted to an Administrative Law Judge

Judge submits recommendation to board

Board votes on final ruling

WITH S.B. 21

Business submits request for permit

DEQ division considers request

DEQ executive secretary approves or denies request

If denied, the business may appeal decision

Appeal submitted to an Administrative Law Judge

Judge submits recommendation to DEQ director

DEQ director makes final decision