BEATON APPEALS TO LAWMAKERS TO PASS WATER PROGRAM BILL
By Colin A. Young
STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE
STATE HOUSE, BOSTON, OCT. 18, 2017....An oversight hearing intended to dig into the capital needs and spending of the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs took a detour Wednesday as lawmakers and a Cabinet secretary debated the merits of a bill that got a hearing last week.
Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Matt Beaton appeared before the House Committee on Bonding, Capital Expenditures and State Assets to detail his secretariat's planned $211 million capital program for fiscal year 2018 and about 45 minutes into his presentation began touting the importance of legislation filed by Gov. Charlie Baker that would allow the state to administer a federal water quality protection program.
Baker's bill (H 2777) would allow the state Department of Environmental Protection to administer the federal Environmental Protection Agency's National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES), a permit program created by the 1972 Clean Water Act to address water pollution by regulating sources of pollutants into the nation's waters, such public and private discharges of wastewater and stormwater.
States have the option to apply to administer the NPDES program, which regulates public and private discharges, under federal oversight at the state level, and Massachusetts is one of four states that has not yet requested "delegation."
"It would, from a holistic basis, allow us to manage all of our water resources in a better fashion that integrates the things that we're doing in the other areas of water, add to the science, do increased water monitoring and water quality testing to better understand the dynamics that are very locally specific relative to water issue," Beaton said after first mentioning the legislation in response to a question about how EEA would respond to federal budget cuts.
Chairman Antonio Cabral picked up the questioning and noted to Beaton that the Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture held a hearing to consider the governor's bill last Tuesday and that, "there are some questions still around that issue."
"Why would the commonwealth take the financial burden for that from the federal government? That would be one. And second, there are a lot of concerns from the environmental community," Cabral said.
Environment Massachusetts last week said it opposes "any legislation that would weaken protections for our waterways and allow more pollution in our rivers and streams, which is the likely outcome if the state takes over this critical water quality program."
Beaton took exception with some of the opposition Wednesday, calling the idea that Massachusetts would use less-stringent standards than the current federal program "the biggest misconception about this program."
"I just can't understand some of the folks that are coming out in opposition to this because by assuming delegation we're not saying 'OK, we're going to create our own standard' and we're going to go below the EPA thresholds that currently exist. We still have to design the permits within the frameworks and requirements of the EPA," he said. "There will be zero environmental degradation or any moving of the needle in a negative way from an environmental perspective if DEP assumes authority of this. I want to dispell that right now."
As for the first part of Cabral's question, Beaton said DEP wants to take on the responsibility for the NPDES program and would not ask for a responsibility that it could not handle. He said having DEP take on the program would cost about $4 million annually, a figure Cabral and Rep. Michelle DuBois indicated they think is not accurate.
"You really think $4 million is realistic to run that program?" Cabral asked Beaton. "Does that $4 million count benefits or just salary? How about pension?"
Beaton said previous estimates were "very rough" but that DEP conducted an analysis of the costs associated with the NPDES program in other states.
"We are confident. Why would DEP want to put itself in it to fail at administering a program?" Beaton said. "We want to be successful more than anybody else. In doing so, we would want to build a realistic budget that sets us up for success and in doing so the commissioner and his team came up with $4 million."
Baker included $1.4 million in his fiscal year 2018 budget proposal to pay for 12 new staffers and to phase in the NPDES program development. Beginning in fiscal 2019, Baker said when he announced the bill in March, a dedicated line item would be funded with $4.7 million to administer the program.
Baker filed a similar bill last session, but that bill met opposition from Democrats on the Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture who questioned whether DEP already has enough on its plate, and whether DEP oversight may be less stringent than the federal government.
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