Disagreement over cleanup

A Rendell plan draws fire from environmentalists and officials.

Posted: July 14, 2007

The Rendell administration late yesterday suggested an alternative to a controversial Senate proposal to pay for the cleanup of hazardous sites by taking $40 million a year from a state land-preservation fund.

Criticism swiftly followed.

Environmental advocates and legislative representatives contended the Rendell plan would only inflict the fiscal pain on other much-needed programs.

Both the Keystone Recreation, Park and Conservation Fund and the Hazardous Sites Cleanup Fund (commonly known as HASCA) need to be "fully funded [but] not to the detriment of other environmental activities in the state," said Dulcie Flaharty, executive director of the Montgomery County Lands Trust. "It's not a good solution."

Rendell is proposing that $20 million be transferred to HASCA from the budgets of departments and agencies overseeing farmland preservation, environmental protection, fishing and boating, and community and economic development, according to Patrick Henderson, director of the Senate's environmental resources and energy committee.

Henderson's boss, State Sen. Mary Jo White (R., Venango, Clarion and Forest and parts of Erie, Warren and Butler Counties), was the prime sponsor of much-condemned Senate Bill 913, which would divert nearly half of the Keystone Fund's $86 million grant budget to the cleanup program.

"What [the administration is] proposing to do is what we were criticized for," Henderson said.

Administration officials originally had said that without the $40 million infusion provided by White's bill, the 20-year-old HASCA would have to end its work at nearly 150 contaminated locations and cancel 230 planned investigations. Now, Rendell appears willing to settle for half that amount.

Land-preservation groups had rebelled against any cuts to the Keystone Fund (Key '93), which distributes grants for parks and greenways in primarily heavily developed communities throughout the state. They were joined on Thursday by advocates for libraries, museums and higher education institutions, which also receive some Keystone funding.

Earlier yesterday, administration officials seemed firm in their support for White's bill. But around 4 p.m., a Rendell spokesman unveiled the alternative.

Under his plan, $20 million for HASCA would be drained from Key '93 annually for the next two years. But that money would be immediately replaced from Growing Greener II, a $625 million bond fund for open-space, environmental and recreation projects, spokesman Charles Ardo said.

The Department of Conservation and Natural Resources "will be able to increase its Keystone Fund expenditures and HASCA will be able to perform its essential function," Ardo said.

Representatives of other land-preservation groups that had spent the week campaigning against Senate Bill 913 said they did not know enough about the details of Rendell's plan to comment on it.

It would have to be voted on by the House and Senate as part of the effort to finalize a state budget, now 14 days overdue.

Contact staff writer Diane Mastrull at 610-313-8095 or dmastrull@phillynews.com.

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