The guardians of the green

Columnist : Albert Paschall

In Harrisburg an initiative is an idea without money, policy is an idea with money, and the cliché ridden Pennsylvania’s 21st Century Environmental Report has turned initiative into policy faster than a leprechaun can wink an eye. In just five short months the Department of Environmental Protection has been magically transformed from pollution police force to the guardians of the green.

Pennsylvania’s bureaucratic wee folk though don’t offer anything nearly as romantic as a pot of gold buried at the end of the rainbow, but dig into the Department of Environmental Protection’s proposed budget and there’s $1.3 billion buried for those with a little luck. Called Growing Greener it’s a program for those who have green, to buy green, using our green backs to pay for their battle against alleged sprawl.

     Sprawl is as succinct as it is undefined. One owner of a new million dollar mini-castle on a two acre lot in southern Chester County said it well: “don’t want more new homes spoiling our view.” Leading open space preservation concepts dangerously close to: “I’ve got mine and you don’t get yours.” Pennsylvania’s Growing Greener program is designed to make that dichotomy the state’s strategic environmental doctrine.

Growing Greener provides for $94 million over the next five years for open space preservation without a tax increase to fund the program. It’s an illusion because all Pennsylvanians will pay for it every time they turn on a spigot. $44 million of that money is coming out of wastewater treatment plants all over the state and when it leaves your town to buy open space somewhere else, you get the bill for the difference.

There are more than 10 million Pennsylvanians served by 10,000 public water systems and since 1984 when the state ranked first in waterborne disease outbreaks, the state has made remarkable strides in quality. In the last 15 years the Pennsylvania Infrastructure Investment Authority has poured more than $730 million into water collection facilities to upgrade filtration systems and pipe lines to prevent the spread of waterborne contamination. Act 339 helps manage the rest of the pollution created by the some 30 billion gallons of bio-solids, detergents and wastewater that 10 million people dump into sewage treatment plants each month.

Now it seems the DEP plans to drain an obscure section of Pennsylvania’s community infrastructure funding called Act 339. 339 provides $44 million a year to supply 2% of the costs of 1,015 wastewater treatment plants in the Commonwealth to help fund Growing Greener. Described by a senior DEP official as an entitlement program “that only buys light bulbs for sewer plants,” the sorry part of this funding shift is that it hurts Pennsylvania’s only real planned communities because the big losers are it’s 65 small cities and 966 boroughs.

Open space preservation shouldn’t be about buying more green space to protect the sunset views that the new landed gentry already own, especially at the expense of our small towns. Some day when open space preservation becomes family farm retention through effective tax relief then Pennsylvania will truly be growing greener. In the meantime with a little luck the general assembly will prevent DEP from chasing rainbows into the 21st century.