Department of Environmental Protection officials are open to potential changes in their proposal to eliminate newspaper public notice requirements for some types of air pollution permits, DEP Secretary Randy Huffman said Monday.
“We’re going to hear from folks and we have the ability to make changes,” Huffman said.
Huffman made his comments in an interview just prior to a Monday evening public hearing and the close of a public comment period on the rule change, proposed by DEP Division of Air Quality Director Fred Durham as part of the agency’s larger annual package of regulatory rewrites and updates.
The proposal would eliminate two types of newspaper public notices that currently must be published for “minor sources” seeking air pollution emissions permits from DEP.
One notice, published by the company seeking a permit, is required at the time of application. The other, published by DEP, is required when agency officials issue a draft permit for public comment. These requirements apply to facilities that would not be considered “major sources,” or those generally defined under a separate DEP rule as those that could emit 100 tons per year or more of certain pollutants.
Instead of those newspaper notices, the DEP proposed to post permit applications and draft permits on the agency’s website.
During Monday evening’s public hearing, the proposal was criticized by Don Smith, executive director of the West Virginia Press Association, a lobby group for the state’s newspapers.
Smith said that the DEP proposal would reduce the ability of average citizens to keep up with potential pollution sources proposed for their communities. Smith said the proposal would take the public notices out of general circulation publications and put them onto a website, a move that would require citizens to actively seek out the notices, rather than simply seeing them in their daily or weekly community newspapers.
“Providing public notice is not a formality,” Smith said. “It’s a responsibility — in fact, a huge responsibility.”
Smith said the DEP proposal would take the air quality permit notices “out of plain sight and bury them in the tangle of documents on government designated websites.”
“In today’s environmentally aware atmosphere — and in a state with documented serious health issues — it’s hard to understand the reason the WVDEP would decide to reduce public notification for a ‘stationary source of air pollutants’ application to the people actually living in an area being considered,” Smith said.
Huffman said that his air quality division’s staff believed that their proposal would actually provide the public with better notice and more information, by allowing them to sign up for email notifications for their home counties, rather than having to comb through the small print of legal advertisements every day or week.
But, while DEP currently does provide notice of many sorts of permits through an email alert system, the rule change proposal under consideration does not include specific language to mandate those email notifications as part of the elimination on newspaper notices. Huffman said that is one possible change the agency could consider to improve the air quality division’s proposal.
The DEP proposal was also criticized by the West Virginia Surface Owners Rights Organization, which represents surface landowners in regions affected by natural gas drilling.
“Although internet access is more widely available than it once was, and many of us have come to rely on the DEP website and public notice email list, thousands of West Virginians in rural areas live without Internet access and many more live in areas that are underserved,” wrote Julie Archer, project manager for the surface landowner group. “Considering this, cutting back on public notice is at odds with transparency and adequate outreach to the public.”
Huffman said that the DEP proposal grew out of talks with oil and gas lobbyists about that industry’s concerns regarding state permitting requirements, talks that agency officials agreed to take part in to block a bill proposed during this year’s legislative session to allow gas drillers to build access roads and drilling pads before they obtained DEP drilling permits. Huffman said that the air quality public notice proposal affects air pollution permits for gas industry compressor stations and drilling pads.
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