Environmental bill drafted in secret zooms to passage
Lawmakers this week fast-tracked plans to revamp the state's environmental oversight boards, shrinking the five panels along with their powers.
Environmentalists have had little to say so far about the changes, which sponsoring Sen. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem, described as a way to make government more efficient.
Why the green groups' reticence? Contents of the 186-page bill were a secret to them and other members of the public until Wednesday's first hearing on it, when it won overwhelming support of the Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Interim Committee.
Matt Pacenza of the Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah [HEAL] called the committee's swift passage of the wordy bill "disturbing."
"We're not even really sure what's in there," he said later, "or what impact it has on the citizen boards charged with protecting Utah's health and the environment."
And since the legislative panel approved it as "a committee" bill, it can go straight to the floor in the 2012 Legislature without a public hearing. Dayton, though, indicated she'll send it to a full-blown hearing during the session.
Dayton began her presentation on the bill with a kind of disclaimer by saying that, although she believes the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is unconstitutional, it is important to ensure Utah equips its own agency to carry out environmental mandates with Utah values in mind.
Flanked by veteran industry attorney Jim Holtkamp, she told fellow committee members the bill had been the subject of two years of "diligent public and private discussion to get it this far" and had been initiated at the request of "the advocacy community," including the Utah Manufacturers Association, which initiated the bill.
Dayton also noted that the DEQ had hosted a two-day meeting of stakeholders including industry, citizens groups and government agencies that developed a report of recommendations. "And out of that report and recommendation," she said, "came this bill."
The stakeholder group, which met on Oct. 13 and 14, had four industry attorneys, two current environmental board members, one past member, a representative from the radioactive waste company EnergySolutions and HEAL director Christopher Thomas, who was only able to attend a half-day of the meetings. Other environmental community members were invited but didn't attend.
"HEAL appreciated the opportunity to participate in the process, but we were the only voice of the nonprofit community represented," said Pacenza. "When we did dissent, our concerns were largely ignored."
"A process dominated by industry and their attorneys led to a bill that's friendly to industry," he added. "Obviously, it's no surprise, but it would have been nice to at least have time to read the bill before the committee passed it."
Among the changes the legislation would make: boards would shrink by as many as four members to no more than nine and the boards' previous role of sitting as a judge in appealed permits and other agency decisions will be transferred instead to the DEQ executive director.
Tom Bingham, director of the manufacturers association, said the bill's wording was released the morning of the committee hearing not in an effort to dodge public scrutiny but simply because it took that long to dot the i's and cross the t's. He added that the bill probably needs a bit more work. That's why his group supports Dayton's plan to have at least one more public review during the legislative session.
"She wants it to have a full hearing, too," he said.
Steve Erickson, representing the Citizens Education Project, urged the board on Wednesday to reconsider having the executive director serve on all five boards in light of the director's new role as the final judge in controversial cases. His concern echoed that of the manufacturers association, which also has wondered about the best way to handle that position.
"It's a big bill," Erickson said, "and there's no need to push it, rush it through the process. So, let's take time to do it right."
Proposed legislation would remove the adjudicative role of the state's five boards and limit their size to nine members apiece. Each board would have two members from the public, including one from a nongovernmental organization, such as an environmental or health advocacy group. Advocates of the bill say the affected boards for air quality, radiation control, drinking water, water quality and solid and hazardous waste would function more efficiently and have a more robust debate with fewer members and clearer duties.