Senate passes bill taking $40M for cleanup fund

By: KORI WALTER (Thu, Jul/12/2007)

HARRISBURG — A tug of war is developing between environmental groups and state lawmakers over whether to use $40 million for cleaning up toxic waste sites or for bike trails, parks and land conservation.

The debate has emerged as lawmakers and Gov. Ed Rendell try to put the finishing touches on a $27.5 billion state budget.

State Senate Republicans and Gov. Ed Rendell propose saving the state's Hazardous Sites Cleanup Fund from extinction by siphoning $40 million from the Keystone Recreation, Park and Conservation Fund — a program that pays for playgrounds, parks, libraries, museums and land conservation.

The $40 million shift would drain more than half of the nearly $76 million in projected revenue for the Keystone Fund, which is paid for by a tax on real estate sales.

Jan Jarrett, vice president of Harrisburg-based environmental watchdog group PennFuture, claimed that it would be the largest funding cut in state history for land conservation and park projects.

“We don't think the biggest cut in conservation funding should come at a time when the state has a $650 million budget surplus,” Jarrett said. “We support finding funding for the hazardous sites cleanup fund, but it should not come at the expense of other environmental programs.”

Senate Bill 916, which would transfer $40 million to the cleanup fund, passed the state Senate on June 26 and awaits a vote in the state House Environmental Resource and Energy Committee.

Money for the toxic waste cleanup program ran out on June 30.

Without new funding, the state may have to halt monitoring groundwater for contamination at the Sellersville Landfill and eight other active toxic site projects in Bucks County.

The Department of Conservation and Natural Resources would take the biggest hit if the $40 million is diverted.

The agency would lose about $28 million — or about half of its total funding — for a program that helped pay for improvements at Washington Crossing State Park, planning for a Warrington Township trail system and other projects.

Rendell originally proposed a $2.25 per ton increase in landfill fees paid by trash haulers to pay for the waste cleanup fund.

Lawmakers opposed to raising taxes this year, and waste haulers that waged a radio advertising campaign helped defeat Rendell's proposal.

Chuck Ardo, a Rendell spokesman, said the governor backs the $40 million shift because of the urgency of cleaning up hazardous waste sites.

Rep. Kate Harper, a Montgomery County Democrat, said she opposes shifting the $40 million away from park and conservation programs.

“There is never enough money in that (Keystone) fund for all of the grant applications,” Harper said. “I think it's a mistake to reduce it. We should find some other way to take care of hazardous waste sites.”

Harper supports an alternative that would use revenue from the state's corporate net income tax to pay for the hazardous waste cleanups.

“In the grand scheme of things, $30 million (for hazardous waste cleanup) is not a lot of money to find in $27 billion,” Harper said. “We should be able to find it without raising taxes.”

Rep. Scott Petri, R-178, said hazardous site cleanup is important, but opposes cutting funding for recreation and conservation projects.

“It's not a question of one program being good and one program being bad,” he said. “They both have to get done.”

Sen. Chuck McIlhinney, R-10, said he's willing to fund both programs as long as there's no tax increase.

McIlhinney voted in favor of the $40 million transfer because he believed the Keystone Fund program would still have enough money to pay for projects.

Over the years, the Keystone Fund has expanded to include grants for universities and other projects not directly related to environmental issues, McIlhinney said.

And if lawmakers have to pick which environmental programs are funded, McIlhinney said the hazardous sites cleanup fund should be the first in line for money.

“It is the environmental cleanup fund for the state,” he said. “We cannot leave that unfunded. That takes top priority for me.”

Petri's district includes Northampton, Wrightstown and Ivyland and portions of Upper Makefield, Upper Southampton and Warwick. McIlhinney represents Falls, Lower Makefield, Morrisville, Tullytown, Newtown, Newtown Township, Upper Makefield, Yardley, 20 municipalities in Central and Upper Bucks and two Montgomery County communities.

Kori Walter can be reached at 717-705-6330 or