With the economy down, business interests have decided that the political environment is ripe for restricting the regulatory reach of the Department of Environmental Protection.

“There is a sense this is a time, an opportunity to reset the ground rules,” said Eric J. Brown, who lobbies on environmental issues for the Connecticut Business and Industry Association.

Some of the bills proposed since the General Assembly convened Feb. 3 offer nuanced changes to the state’s environmental regulatory structure. Others are openly hostile to the DEP.

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DEP Commissioner Amey Marrella

One Democratic legislator, Rep. Brian J. O’Connor of Clinton, filed a bill that would eliminate the DEP and assign its duties to the Department of Economic and Community Development, literally subjugating environmental protection to economic development.

“It was to spark a larger debate,” said O’Connor, who is employed by the Middlesex Chamber of Commerce. “I guess I was frustrated and expressed the frustration that others have had, especially the business community, in working with the department.”

Environmentalists fear that Brown may be right about a shifting political environment, and they are mobilizing to defend against what they say is an assault on environmental protection. They do not see the pending regulatory bills, some of which are the subject of a public hearing today, as an attempt to improve the business environment.

“Polluters are trying to put road blocks in the way of the DEP doing its job, taking the environment cops off the beat,” said Christopher Phelps, program director the advocacy group, Connecticut Environment.

The battle lines are sharply drawn, the rhetoric heated.

“From our perspective, we look at it as too much of an advocacy group,” Brown said of the DEP. “There are plenty of advocacy groups out there. The DEP is an arm of the government.”

Brown said he senses “a growing interesting in looking more big picture at what’s going on with the regulatory process, particularly with the DEP. Some are just concept bills, but some will grow into regulatory reform bills.”

One bill would require that economic impact be considered in any changes in energy policy. Another would require the DEP to seek public comments from “the regulated community” before implementing any policies formulated by a multi-state compact that tries to curtail ground-level ozone pollution.

CBIA long has criticized the program as a burden to business.

“In effect, they are intended to put more due process in the DEP’s regulatory process,” said Sen. Edward Meyer, D-Guilford, co-chairman of the Environment Committee. “That’s the way I read those initiatives by CBIA.”

Meyer said he is sensitive to business needs — last year he helped negotiated an expedited environmental impact study to allow the construction of a hangar at Oxford Airport — but he is not afraid beef up protections. He has filed a bill that would require a bigger buffer zone between wetlands and new development.

But environmentalists say that, overall, the vibe is not good for environmental protection.

In addition to the legislative initiatives, Gov. M. Jodi Rell issued an executive order this month creating a Permitting Task Force to look for ways to streamline permits. CBIA has been invited to join.

One of the bills submitted by CBIA would subject “guidance statements” – documents issued by the DEP that give directions on how to comply with regulations — to oversight by the legislature’s Regulations Review Committee.

“Those are documents that DEP issues unilaterally. There is no review. There is no opportunity for appeal, other than griping to the agency,” Brown said.

Brown said the statements carry the force of regulations.

One regulation says that concrete debris can be broken up and used as clean fill, allowing developers to save the cost of disposal at special facilities, so long as it poses no threat to groundwater, he said.

But the associated guidance statement specifies that any concrete that has been painted or stained should be considered contaminated.

“Where did that come from? What’s the basis for that?” he said.

Dennis Schain, a spokesman for the DEP, said the guidance statement reflects the fact that paints and stains can leach volatile organics and other pollutants into groundwater. It is consistent with the underlying regulation and offers real-world guidance, he said.

Jessie Stratton, the director of government relations for Environment Northeast, said the guidance-statement bill sounds reasonable until the impact on the department is considered.

“The department is so short-staffed at this point,” she said.

The suspicion is that the bill is meant to keep the DEP, whose permitting procedures have been a source of heated criticism by developers, industry and the marine trades, on the defensive, hampering the agency’s ability to regulate industry, she said.

The DEP, which has 950 employees, lost 68 senior employees last year to a retirement incentive program. The department says its staffing is at a 12-year low.

“I feel very strongly that the DEP has been decimated with regard to its staff,” Meyer said.

Supporters say that staff shortages are responsible for the department’s history of backlogged permit applications, which has made it vulnerable to attack.

“I think the frustration comes not so much with the regulatory structure that we’ve built, but rather with our failure to invest in the resources to enable permits and the like to be processed in a timely fashion,” said Sen. Andrew W. Roraback, R-Goshen, a member of the Environment Committee.

“They are right to be worried in one sense,” House Majority Leader Denise W. Merrill, D-Mansfield, said of the environmentalists. “It is a well-known fact in this state it takes almost two years to get a water permit for any development project. By any account, that shouldn’t be true.”

Until recently, according to the DEP, the delay actually was more than 2-½ years.

On Friday, Amey Marrella, the commissioner of environmental protection, appeared before the Environment Committee to answer complaints by the marine trades industry that the department was slow to issue permits for overdue dredging projects at deep-water ports in New London, New Haven and Bridgeport.

“The complaint was that the DEP was slow in granting dredging permits that it was slowing the economy down,” Meyer said. “I think Amey Marrella took that seriously.”

Marrella told the committee that the department had to abide by federal rules and that the biggest obstacle was the state of New York’s opposition to the disposal of dredging materials in Long Island Sound. New York’s top environmental regulator equates the dumping to a defeated proposal to locate a floating liquid natural gas depot on the Sound, she said.

“I think that gives you an idea of how far apart we are,” Marrella said.

In an interview, Marrella said that the department has learned how to streamline the approval process for several permits during a review ordered 18 months ago by Gov. M. Jodi Rell.

By May, the department expects a waste-water permit will require a 284-day review, down from 925 days, she said.

Its inland water resources division already has collapsed seven regulatory programs into two technical disciplines, helping to reduce a backlog of 300 pending applications by 138, according to a DEP memo.

Getting permission to put a residential dock in the water now takes 100 days, down from 550, Marrella said.

“We need to deliver the applications that are needed, the permits that are needed as efficiently as possible,” Marrella said. “All of us at DEP recognize that we have a role in this economic engine.”

Brown is skeptical about a new philosophy at DEP. And he rejects complaints of staff shortages.

“No, there doesn’t need to be more staff over there. There needs to be a change in the way they do their operations,” Brown said. “It’s a large staff overall.”

He said waste-water permit reviews still are overly technical.

“Focus on what’s coming out the pipe,” Brown said. “Does it meet the standard or not meet the standard? With the DEP, that’s the last question.”

For decades, Connecticut has considered itself on the cutting edge of environmental protection. It is a legacy that environmentalists say should be a source of pride.

Not Brown.

“I just don’t think that’s the world we live in any more,” he said. “Manufacturers are flying out of here and damn few are coming in.”

Phelps said Brown is trying to make legislators choose between encouraging business and protecting the environment. He rejects the argument they are mutually exclusive.

“That’s just nonsensical,” Phelps said. “Clean air, clean water, a well-preserved landscape are essential parts of what makes a good quality of life in every community in this state. Those goals don’t run counter to the goals of creating jobs.”

Roraback said, “It would be a tremendous disservice to our state were we to jettison decades of [environmental] work in the name of expediency, economic expediency.”

Rep. Craig A. Miner, R-Litchfield, an Environment Committee member and one of the legislature’s leading fiscal conservatives, said the state’s continuing fiscal crisis requires that its top priorities be job-creation and a more cost-effective government.

But he added, “That is not necessarily, and should not be, at the peril of the environment.”

Mark is the Capitol Bureau Chief and a co-founder of CT Mirror. He is a frequent contributor to WNPR, a former state politics writer for The Hartford Courant and Journal Inquirer, and contributor for The New York Times.

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