Energy. Environment. Economy.

Bill would eliminate buffer requirement for Pennsylvania’s cleanest streams

Loyalsock Creek in Sullivan County.


Loyalsock Creek in Sullivan County.

Yet another battle of the economy versus the environment is taking place in Harrisburg. This time, conservationists say Pennsylvania’s cleanest streams are at stake.

A bill (HB1565) working its way through the state legislature would eliminate a requirement for 150-foot buffer zones between new developments and specially protected watersheds.

Thick rows of trees and shrubs help keep pollution from washing off buildings and pavement into waterways. However, developers say waterfront property is valuable and 150 feet can be too much to ask for certain projects.

The buffer requirement – passed four years ago under the Rendell administration – only applies to developments that require stormwater discharge permits and that are adjacent to one of Pennsylvania’s “high quality” or “exceptional value” streams. These waterways are often used for recreation and are home to wild brook trout and other species.

“The regulation is very narrow,” said David Hess, a former secretary of the state Department of Environmental Protection. “It really only applies to a small percentage of the watersheds in Pennsylvania and even there, there are a lot of exemptions.”

Developers can apply for waivers from the DEP.

That’s part of the problem, says Gregory Newell, a member of the Pennsylvania Builders Association, which has been lobbying to remove the buffer requirement.

Newell says companies like his Montgomery County-based engineering firm, Nave Newell, Inc., can spend tens of thousands of dollars on a proposal without knowing if regulators will accept their application.

“That takes a considerable amount of time and money and it’s a lot of risk to find out whether you’re going to get it or not,” he said, noting developers still need to use best management practices to maintain water quality.

According to the DEP, the agency has never denied a waiver request. The applicants either satisfied one of six waiver provisions or changed the scope of their projects, said spokeswoman Amanda Witman in an e-mail.

“Their definition of not denying might be [they]’ll allow something, but greatly restricting what it is that you can do in the buffer,” said Newell.

Despite opposition from a number of environmental groups, HB1565 recently cleared a senate committee with support from both parties. If it passes, forested buffers would become an optional tool for preventing stream banks from eroding and preserving water quality. Developers would also be required to offset disturbances within 100 feet of a stream by planting a replacement buffer elsewhere in the same watershed.

Hess, who now works as a lobbyist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, says the legislation could compromise Pennsylvania’s ability to protect these special watersheds – putting the state “in hot water” with federal regulators.

“To take away what little protection we have now… would just be a major hole in the whole program of preventing the water quality in these areas from degrading,” he said.

The full senate is expected to take up the bill before the end of the legislative session on Tuesday.


  • Victoria Switzer

    Mitigation is a fabrication! They destroy a wetland or stream buffer and are going to recreate or protect another wetland elsewhere or plant a replacement buffer? I say just stand up Senators and Reps and place your hands over your hearts and recite the pledge allegiance to the gas and oil industry! OH YOU ALREADY HAVE!

    • Josh First

      Nah, people opposed to the 150-foot buffer uncompensated taking swore allegiance to the US CONSTITUTION. Which prevents uncompensated takings by government.

      • JimBarth

        Oh ye of narrow perspective, this would be a matter of litigation, as opposed to your worthless opinion, no?
        Who says a buffer is a “taking”, uncompensated, or not?
        The Wetlands Protection Act was passed around 1988 under George H.W. Bush. This act prevented my wife and me from disturbing wetlands without a permit, for the purpose of putting in a pond (which we would have been given money by the government to do the year before this bill was passed), and as the soil conservation department employee I spoke with in 1989 said to me, “We aren’t giving any of those out now”. When you purchase land, does not the government, or the utilities, have a right of way for the utilities that extends from the middle of the road, into your land, about 25 feet or more, depending?
        Whom are you trying to fool?

  • Jack Wolf

    Enough is enough. Most of these areas will either be wetlands or floodplains, or both. Our watersheds are under attack through fracking. Bi-sexed fish are showing up in our rivers where males are producing eggs. Trees are dying en masse or are being cleared for thousands of miles of gas pipelines. People’s wells are being polluted and areas like the Woodlands in Butler County where they rely on water buffalos. 150 feet may sound like a lot of buffer to some, but its roughly two or three times wider than a two lane road. That’s all – it’s nothing. Don’t allow them to take this away.
    We can’t afford to give up anything right now – this is all about money. Money for the developer.
    And, if you don’t believe that the environment is not as important as money, try holding your breath as you count it.

  • Randy Fishel

    Developers monies must be finding a way to the political pots again. Crying about spending money before knowing if they can is ridiculous. Just because they are putting the cart before the horse is their problem. It’s like building a house before getting the permits. Not only chancy but stupid.
    We’ve ruined enough of our environment why not just let them build in the middle of the stream and really screw things up.

  • Celia Janosik

    In God We Trust is on the money because money is our god. Why should greed make all the decisions? Water and air should make all the decisions.

  • AlSever

    As the Ex-DEP manager ager for the Soils and Waterways Section of the Bureau of water Quality in the North Central Region of DEP, I permitted and inspected hundreds of earth moving activities near EV and HQ waterways in 14 counties of North Central Pa for 30+ ,years. In that time the NC region accessed 65% of ALL violations .for Chap 102 and Chap 105 regulations in the state. I can not recall any situation where a buffer made any difference at all. Gross E&S violations will overwhelm a 500 foot buffer, let alone 150. Operators who follow the regulations and ensure their work will not create problems are rarely found in violation. Buffers are BS!

    • JimBarth

      When I read your posts, it infuriates me that you were a Commonwealth employee at PA DEP, let alone for 30 years. You simply should have been working for either extraction companies, or real estate developers, certainly not a department of “environmental protection”. I can’t imagine the crap you let people get away with. In many circles PA DEP is pronounced “Pay Dep”. You seem to be a perfect example of that wing of the department.

      • AlSever

        Actually I was the ONLY employee to actually issue an ORDER to a gas company to Cease operations—Columbia Natural Gas in Sullivan Twp, Bradford County–afterwards I was NOT allowed to inspect any Oil and Gas operation operating in the Nortyh Central region. How many gas sites have you shut down? Also gave violations to Pa Fish Comm; Pa Bureau of Prisons; Trout Unlimited; Two different County Conservation Districts; several Watershed groups–and fined the nuns in Montour County $34,000. What have you done? Buffers are BS.

        • Josh First

          Excellent response, Al. These far-left kooks are not interested in your actual experience. They are on the war path and nothing can deter them. It is a herd mentality. Very sad and very bad for American politics. I am also sad that you were no longer allowed to inspect any more O&G operations. That is bad government. You should be able to do your job.

        • JimBarth

          You have not explained why buffers are “BS”.
          What I see from your posts is that you were in charge of inspecting and enforcing a law, and by implication, other laws, that you think are “BS”. How much faith can anyone have that you would do so properly, when you feel the law is “BS”?
          PA DEP has had a terrible reputation, and track record, when it comes to enforcement and inspection, let alone prevention of contamination, when it comes to shale gas extraction since 2004.
          I object to your original exclamation point “BS” in relation to buffer zones, as it implies that repealing buffer zones is a “solution” to any problem that exists.
          In my book, restricting the type of development allowed within buffer zones, and increasing the area of buffer zones for such development, combined with stronger and meaningful regulations on the type of development that abuts the buffer zones, would be a solution. What is yours?

      • Josh First

        Riiiiggghhhtt, Jim. It infuriates you that the science runs counter to what you want to believe, and it infuriates you that a professional’s actual field experience runs counter to what you want to believe. Why don’t you develop an open mind and listen to something other than propaganda? And why is this an all-or-nothing proposition? Is it not possible to want to protect the environment in some other way, different from what you want? Why is a nuanced subject only black and white to you?

        • JimBarth

          Read my response to Al Sever’s. He offered no “science” in his original post, and, it is you who should develop an “open mind” as you post above, since you describe me as a “far-left kook”, which might enable you to sleep at night, but otherwise, has no relation to reality. Also, read my response to your ridiculous assertions about “takings”.

  • Jonn

    It’s all part of the State’s new “screw the future, live and make money today!” agenda.

    Get with the program, people. Polluted streams and groundwater? That’s for the next generation (and administration) to deal with. We need jobs now! Start up those bulldozers and sweep those tree hugging hippies out of the way.

    • Josh First

      So you were opposed to Governor Rendell when he started all of this, right?
      You come across as another political partisan suffering from faux outrage, now that someone from “the other party” did what your guy did.

  • Josh First

    What a badly written article. “Conservationists” do not advocate for stealing private property, which is what the 150-foot rule accomplished. The 150-foot buffer might be OK if only the private landowner got compensated for the taking. Conservationists have a long record of purchasing land to protect it, not relying on government fiat to strip it away from its owners. Smart Growth tools have long been used to compensate landowners for losses incurred when they gave up their private land for some public benefit. Higher density on the developed area is a common reward. The 150-foot buffer rule bypassed all of that, rendering Smart Growth tools pointless.

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