New Castle News

August 30, 2013

Bill targets environmental regulators

John Finnerty

HARRISBURG — State Rep. Jeffrey Pyle, R-Indiana County, was outraged when a local school had to waste time and money responding to fruitless worries a construction project would harm endangered wildlife.

So Pyle authored a bill aimed at going after environmental regulators he feels are too powerful and too unaccountable for the actions.

“For some reason, someone decided we had to spend extra money to protect (wild animals) that aren’t there,” Pyle said at a public hearing in Pottsville this week.

His bill has gotten plenty of support — in the Legislature and in the business community, where lobbying organizations are lining up to fight for wholesale changes to the way Pennsylvania determines what an endangered species is.

Sixty-eight members of the 153-member House signed on as cosponsors, including lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. Co-sponsors include Rep. Jaret Gibbons, D-Lawrence.

An identical version of the bill was introduced in the state Senate.

Pyle and other promoters of the legislation said it is chiefly aimed at demanding that the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission and Pennsylvania Game Commission publicly explain how and why they determined an animal is threatened in Pennsylvania or in a particular part of the state.

“Show your proof,” Pyle said. “Right now, we don’t have that.”

Pyle’s sentiments were echoed by George Ellis president of the Pennsylvania Coal Alliance, who said the coal industry was caught flat-footed when the fish and boat commission announced that 96 streams were being protected because of the large number of trout in them. With only 30 days to respond, the coal operators were unable to organize their objections before the public comment period expired, Ellis said.

But opponents said the bill will bring politics into decisions about endangered wildlife and that the bill does too much to defang the environmental regulators.

By stripping the two commissions of ultimate authority, the bill also could cost them $27 million in federal funding for protecting endangered wildlife, John Organ, chief of the division of wildlife and sport fish restoration at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, warned in a letter to the state agencies.

John Arway, executive director of the fish and boat commission, said the bill could effectively eliminate the state’s endangered wildlife list. Animals identified as endangered in Pennsylvania may exist in healthy populations in other parts of the country, but are so rare here that regulators fear they could disappear. Animals on the federal endangered species list are considered endangered nationally, but may exist in healthy numbers in a particular state.

The bill states that any animal is only endangered if it’s threatened throughout “its range” rather than in the Commonwealth. There are at least 10 species that would lose protection by this change, according to the fish and boat commission’s analysis.

In some ways, the conflict has been intensified by the growth of the natural gas industry, Arway said.

Ellis said energy industry complaints have increased in recent years, but he believed the stepped-up enforcement predated the natural gas boom.

Arway said his regulators have made a concentrated effort to identify valuable trout streams in response to lobbying from gas companies. The gas industry got burned on occasions when they sought permits in areas only to have regulators announce the waterways were environmentally significant. So, the commission launched an effort to document valuable trout streams before anyone begins trying to develop around them, Arway said.

In many cases, these were waterways that scientists suspected had trout in them, but they were in rural areas where there wasn’t much environmental threat. However, Arway said, the expansion of gas drilling has created development pressure in even the most isolated corners of the Commonwealth.

Species in danger

Some of the species that could lose protection under proposed changes:

•Blue-spotted salamander — It was unknown in Pennsylvania until 2000 when it was discovered in McKean County. Since then, it has been found at only two other locations in Northampton and Warren counties. The blue-spotted salamander is 4 to 5 1/2 inches, but nearly half of that is tail. The blue-spotted salamander’s spots resemble the patterns of pots and pans known as graniteware.

•Rough green snake — Considered one of Pennsylvania’s rarest reptiles. There was a sighting in Greene County in 1924, but otherwise, it’s only known to exist in Chester and Lancaster counties. Adults are 18 to 30 inches long.

•Northern cricket frog — Pennsylvania’s smallest frog. This frog has been eliminated from 92 percent of its historical (pre-1983) locations. In addition, of the six populations discovered since 1983, three already have disappeared.

•Redbelly turtle — Most of the state’s redbelly turtles are in Bucks, Delaware, Montgomery and Philadelphia counties. There are also reports of isolated populations of eastern redbelly turtles as far west as Adams and Franklin counties. Eastern redbelly turtles are large compared to other Pennsylvania turtles. Adult males have an average length of more than 10 inches and females are nearly 12 inches.

•Southern leopard frog — As its name implies, this 2- to 3-inch frog is found throughout the southern United States but in Pennsylvania is only known to exist in the suburban counties around Philadelphia.

(Source: Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission)