COLUMBUS - A legislative panel fashioning a compromise state budget is negotiating changes to Gov. Ted Strickland's proposal to allow his new environmental director to change the permit for the proposed FDS Coke Plant in Oregon and East Toledo.
The talks are largely focused on ensuring that property owners, governments, environmental groups, or others who are not involved in appeals over the proposed $800 million plant could enter the fray if they feel changes made to the 2004 permit adversely affect them.
"We're trying to find a way to open it up to those people only, and not have the whole thing start over from the beginning, because that delays the ability for this particular project and others to get going," said Rep. Matt Dolan (R., Novelty), chairman of the House-Senate budget conference committee.
"We don't want to send a message that Ohio is so bogged down by regulation that it's not a friendly place to start a business," he said.
The six-member, Republican-dominated conference committee met briefly yesterday to approve a number of noncontroversial changes made to the $52.3 billion, two-year budget by the Senate. The committee has yet to address the coke plant language, which was added at the last minute in the Senate at the request of Mr. Strickland.
"[The proposed compromise] still enables the coking plant to go forward," said Rep. Dale Miller (D., Cleveland), a committee member. "The language that we've developed is more directed toward how this expansion of authority would be applied in future cases down the line as opposed to how it would directly affect the coking plant."
Opponents of the plant have called the measure an end-run around the Environmental Review Appeals Commission, which blocked an attempt by a prior director of the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency to rethink parts of the permit in the middle of the appeals process.
The anonymously backed U.S. Coking Group has argued that the pollution standards in the permit are too restrictive.
Rep. Mike Skindell (D., Lakewood), ranking Democrat on the committee, said the EPA has assured him no final decision on the permit has been made.
"It's fundamental to protect the people's right to appeal and to protect the public's right to comment," said Jack Shaner, spokesman for the Ohio Environmental Council. "It's a heck of a bitter pill to swallow for EPA to get this power grab with virtually no public debate.
"The coke plant is the poster child, but this goes way beyond that," he said. "This is any permit, rule, or order [on which] the EPA director can change his mind in midstream. This is not good for democracy or the environment."
The conference committee will resume its work tomorrow with the goal of having a final budget on the governor's desk next week.
It has yet to identify spending cuts to compensate for a $167 million shortfall identified Thursday by the Strickland administration.
A new budget must be in place before the next fiscal year begins July 1.
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