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State cut permitting backlog 60% since 2023

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(The Center Square) — The Department of Environmental Protection has long had a reputation for its painfully slow permitting process.

And now, new numbers show that, at least dealing with backlogs, the agency has made significant progress.

In December 2023, more than 2,000 permits were in the backlog queue at DEP’s offices. By June 28, the backlog had been reduced by 56% to 970 permits, John Ryder, DEP’s deputy secretary for field operations, announced during a DEP Citizens Advisory Council meeting on Tuesday.

“It was our goal early in 2024 to reduce that backlog by 10% each month. We’re hovering very close to that, but we still have a long way to go,” Ryder said. “I have to commend the work of the regional offices and all the permitting staff in those offices for their excellent work in continuously chipping away at that backlog.”

Ryder called the backlog an important priority for the agency’s permitting staff. Gov. Josh Shapiro’s administration has trumpeted its performance in reducing state agency backlogs, from the Department of State to teaching certifications in the Department of Education, among others.

Within DEP, the problem has been sticky. Lawmakers have accused the agency’s permitting process of being confusing, hard to understand, and inconsistent. The agency has about 800 different types of permits and a resolution has been proposed in the House to figure out best practices for making the permitting system more efficient. Rep. Bud Cook, R-Waynesburg, called the agency a “job-killer” in January.

Regional offices, too, have been inconsistent. If a business applies to a regional office, it might take weeks or months longer than others.

“The department in an annual year reviews around 40,00 permits and authorizations — it’s a crushing workload,” Ryder said.

But he struck an optimistic tone on the administrations’ payback program, where DEP refunds the money for a permit application if it’s not processed in time.

“We’ve had excellent success thus far, knock on wood,” Ryder said.

Since payback went into effect on November 1, DEP has reviewed 16,000 permitting applications, despised of more than 12,000, and have about 3,700 permits still pending.

“The statistic I’m mostly focused on is how many we have that are payback-eligible. Currently, we only have 14 permits eligible,” Ryder said. “We’ve currently received a grand total of zero payback requests since the program started.”

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