Sizing Up Pennsylvanias Next DEP Secretary

Today, the acronym DEP still stands for the “Department of Environmental Protection,” thanks to the era of relative cooperation between government and industry established by former DEP Secretaries James Seif and David Hess.

With the confirmation of Philadelphia native Kathleen McGinty a few steps away from reality, many Pennsylvania businesses rightfully worry that under her influence the agency will reestablish its reputation as the “Department of Environmental PROSECUTION”—leaving countless more “economic tombstones” of fleeing industries and lost jobs as its enforcement calling card.

To her credit, McGinty’s professed chief objectives as DEP Secretary include laudable efforts such as cleaning up contaminated sites to encourage business development, promoting the development and use of non-polluting technology, and reducing the costs of environmental regulations while improving air and water quality.

“What I want to roll my sleeves up and look at a lot more closely is how we can take some more creative and innovative approaches to meeting some of those challenges,” stated McGinty. But exactly what types of “creative and innovative approaches” can Pennsylvania citizens and employers logically anticipate when former Vice President Al Gore’s “right-hand” environmental policy advisor finally gets the chance to roll up her sleeves?

To say that McGinty’s past is a cause for concern for many of Pennsylvania’s job creators is an understatement. During her tour of duty with the Clinton administration, McGinty was involved with a host of unprecedented government land grabs, job-crushing regulations, and an overwhelming lack of respect for private property rights.

Fortune magazine’s 1997 article, “Washington’s Most Dangerous Bureaucrats,” stated that “McGinty’s proudest moments in Clinton’s service include some of the darkest days for industrial America,” when the federal government grabbed 1.7 million acres of land in southern Utah. Furthermore, “her biggest accomplishment,” according to Fortune, “was also her most damaging from the corporate perspective.” As the co-chair of a task force which developed new EPA clean air rules that then-President Clinton adopted without alteration, McGinty led an effort that automakers, oil companies, and other companies estimated would cost them more than $150 billion a year. In 1995, McGinty opposed a measure that would have compensated land owners any time an environmental rule reduced property values. “The Clinton administration is preparing to fight back against a barrage of Republican initiatives that could loosen regulations designed to protect the environment and strengthen the rights of property owners to resist government rules,” she said. In her words, fairly compensating citizens for governmental devaluation of property is “the Godzilla that ate the Government.”

Much like anyone else starting a new job, Kathleen McGinty will have a golden opportunity to make a positive first impression. In order to ease the minds of Pennsylvania’s entrepreneurial community, as DEP Secretary, McGinty must consistently demonstrate that the environmental benefits for any proposed regulatory policies outweigh the economic costs they impose on businesses, property owners, and other taxpayers before imposing them.

Although Pennsylvania still employs many of the traditional means for enforcing environmental protection laws, the key to the state’s success under both of McGinty’s predecessors was the increasing willingness to partner with municipalities, private citizens, and private businesses. A recent headline in Environment and Climate News, published by the Chicago-based Heartland Institute, declared that “Pennsylvania Offers a Blueprint for Environmental Protection.” The report on Pennsylvania stated that:

Solid waste, air pollution, and water pollution have been permanently reduced by hundreds of millions of tons and billions of gallons; millions of pounds of toxic emissions have been eliminated. More than 33,300 acres of abandoned mines have been reclaimed, 967 miles of streams cleaned up, and 5,000 acres of wetlands restored. The state even exceeded its goal of recycling 35 percent of household waste.

Around the world, wherever free enterprise, free trade, and limited government flourish, rising standards of living, cleaner environments, better working conditions, and greater personal freedom follow as the “natural” results. Or as authors Joseph Bast, Peter Hill and Richard Rue remind us in their book Eco-Sanity: A Common-Sense Guide to Environmentalism, “Prosperity is not only compatible with a clean environment, it is environmental protection’s necessary pre-condition.”

Will Kathleen McGinty put the word “PROSECUTION” back at the top of DEP’s enforcement lexicon? Only time and—more importantly—the number of inspections, amount of fines, and promulgation of stifling regulation originating from the Rachel Carson Building will tell.

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Ty McCauslin is a former Communications Manager for The Commonwealth Foundation, a free-market public policy research and educational institute based in Harrisburg, PA. For more information, visit