HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — A federal official's warning that Pennsylvania is not adequately enforcing safe drinking water standards after years of budget cuts has prompted a bipartisan environmental council to advise lawmakers to boost funding to protect the environment.
The warning, in December, was just the latest from a federal agency that the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection is not adequately staffed to carry out its mission. The state agency also has been warned in recent months about inadequate staffing for air quality and mining pollution programs.
Created by state law, the Citizens Advisory Council suggests in a Feb. 22 letter to top lawmakers that cuts to Pennsylvania's deficit-strapped budget have reached a critical point. At the DEP, council Chairman William Fink wrote, the cuts over the last two decades have "reached an unsustainable level."
Eventually federal agencies, such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, could take enforcement duties away from Pennsylvania, the council warned.
To try to compensate for the cuts and better protect the environment, the DEP has pursued fee increases on industries it regulates. It is currently proposing five fee packages, including $7.5 million in new annual fees on public water systems. The money would be used to hire more drinking water inspectors, and the fees likely would be passed on to Pennsylvania's 10.7 million water customers.
Thousands of public water systems in Pennsylvania, including big water utilities and wells that supply villages or campgrounds, must meet environmental standards on bacteria levels, chemicals, nitrates, lead and other contaminants. But because of a lengthy rulemaking process, the department could not start hiring and training new inspectors until September 2018.
Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf's budget proposal seeks a small increase in state funding for the department, but the $32.3 billion plan otherwise does not ask the Republican-controlled Legislature for money to resolve federal concerns over safe drinking water enforcement.
"The governor's budget is an initial proposal and we will continue engaging the General Assembly on the importance of addressing this challenge," Wolf's press secretary, J.J. Abbott, said.
Environmental advocates, including the department's secretaries, have warned for years that the agency is dangerously underfunded. Those warnings have fallen on deaf ears in a state Legislature that has preferred spending cuts to tax increases to get through a stubborn post-recession deficit.
David Hess, who served as department secretary from 2001 to 2003 under Republican Govs. Tom Ridge and Mark Schweiker, said the agency is getting 40 percent fewer dollars from the Legislature since its high water mark 14 years ago.
"To me, it is just a crime what happened to the DEP's budget over the last 14 years," Hess said.
The department is continually under pressure to more quickly process construction or stream-crossing permits for commercial builders, pipeline companies and other industries. The waiting period for a commercial developer to get a response to a storm water management plan has tripled over the years to nine months, according to a spokesman for Associated Builders and Contractors, an industry association.
Hess said the squeeze should be on the lawmakers themselves and governors who cut funding for staff who handle permit applications.
In a Dec. 30 letter to the DEP, an Environmental Protection Agency official warned that inadequate staffing had caused the number of unaddressed Safe Drinking Water Act violations to nearly double from 4,298 to 7,922 over five years.
The EPA has not responded to the department's plan to raise permit fees.
John Brosious, deputy director of the Pennsylvania Municipal Authorities Association, said the water utilities are experiencing some "sticker shock" with the fee proposals.
"They're taking a good hard look at this and saying, 'Well, where did this new fee come from and why is it being passed onto us and what created the shortfall for the DEP that this money is not available to them anymore?'" Brosious said.