Vitali: Chronic underfunding has compromised DEP

HARRISBURG, March 9 – Calling it paramount to restore proper funding to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, state Rep. Greg Vitali, D-Delaware/Montgomery, testified before the House Appropriations Committee today highlighting numerous statistics and consequences that show the agency’s ability to protect Pennsylvania’s environment is being severely handicapped.

“The chronic underfunding of DEP by the legislature has severely handicapped its ability to protect the public health and the environment in Pennsylvania,” Vitali said. “A former DEP secretary recently commented that the budget trends for the department over the past fourteen years are horrendous. This claim has been validated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of the Interior and respected nonprofit organizations.”

According to Vitali, DEP has lost 600 positions since 2002 and lost $94 million in state funding, approximately a 40 percent reduction. Furthermore, Vitali noted:

  • A 2015 Environmental Protection Agency audit found that DEP’s air quality monitoring division is severely understaffed, which can lead to the department missing the release of harmful pollutants into the air due to the lack of staff to monitor data;
  • A 2014 letter from the U.S. Department of the Interior, Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement outlined that DEP had an inability to meet the recommended inspection frequency at coal mines, which can lead to increased risk of pollution to rivers, streams and wetlands;
  • In recent years, positions in the oil and gas program fell from 227 to 190. Again, a lack of staff could lead to DEP not noticing all instances of pollution leaks and spills;
  • According to DEP’s Bureau of Clean Water, Division of Water Quality Standards, there are not enough water protection biologists to monitor and access the waters across Pennsylvania, and at least 12-18 more staff biologists are needed in regional offices. Lack of staff could lead to increased risk of both improper and illegal pollutant discharges into Pennsylvania waterways;
  • Pennsylvania is currently not making sufficient progress to reduce nutrients and sediments flowing into the Chesapeake Bay by 2025, and while the EPA recommends DEP inspect 10 percent of farms annually, as of 2014 DEP was only inspecting 1.8 percent. Increased nutrients and sediments could lead to the creation of dead zones in the bay that can kill fish and shellfish; and
  • Most troubling, at the end of 2016 the EPA noted that the Pennsylvania drinking water program failed to meet federal requirements for onsite review of water system operations and maintenance capability. Since 2009, DEP staffing levels for water inspection has declined from 84 field inspectors to 54. In Pennsylvania, the average workload of a DEP water inspector is double the national average. Not completing sanitary survey inspections in a timely manner can have serious public health implications.

“These are all extremely troubling trends that show Pennsylvania is simply not funding DEP at the level needed for the agency to do its job,” Vitali said. “We’re hearing more and more about unsafe drinking water contaminated with lead in communities around the state. Without proper staffing levels, DEP simply cannot protect Pennsylvanians from issues like this.

“The annual funding level of DEP is a collective decision of the Pennsylvania General Assembly. We need to take full responsibility for the consequences of this chronic underfunding and I respectfully ask that leadership considers an increase in funding and support of proposed fee packages.”