Opinion: DEP cuts put public health at risk

Chronic underfunding of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has compromised its ability to protect public health and the environment. Since 2002, state funding for the DEP has been cut by about 40 percent. Staffing has been reduced by about 600 positions.

Safe Drinking Water

DEP does not have sufficient staff to adequately inspect its 8,500 public drinking-water systems. The average workload of a DEP inspector is now double the national average. In December the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency warned DEP that this inadequate staffing could have “serious public health implications.”

Air Quality

DEP doesn’t have sufficient personnel to monitor air quality. A 2015 EPA audit determined DEP’s Air Quality Monitoring Division was severely understaffed. This understaffing has increased the risk of harmful pollutant discharge. Fewer companies are now being monitored and the air monitoring data is being viewed less frequently.

Stream Protection

DEP’s Division of Water Quality Standards does not have enough water-protection biologists to monitor the waters of the commonwealth. According to a DEP source, at least 12-18 more biologists are needed in the regional offices. This lack of staffing has increased the risk of improper pollutant discharges into Pennsylvania waterways.

Chesapeake Bay

The EPA has determined that Pennsylvania has not made sufficient progress in reducing the amount of nitrogen, phosphorus and sediment pollutants it is delivering to the Chesapeake Bay. A major source of these pollutants is runoff from the 33,600 Pennsylvania farms in the bay’s watershed. DEP does not have nearly enough staff to adequately inspect these farms. These pollutants have created dead zones in the bay, which have killed fish and caused a dramatic decline of the Chesapeake’s oyster industry. These pollutants have also degraded local water quality in Pennsylvania.

Oil and Gas

DEP has lost 37 positions in its Oil and Gas program in the past two years. Inspectors are needed at the drilling site to detect problems. This loss has increased the risk that leaks, spills and damage to streams, groundwater and wetlands will go undetected.

Surface Mining

Last March, the U.S. Department of the Interior warned DEP that it had an insufficient number of surface mining compliance inspectors.

DEP’s failure to inspect its surface coal mines with sufficient frequency has increased the risk of pollution to rivers, stream and wetlands, as well as private water wells and springs. A lack of inspectors and proper oversight also places the lives of miners at risk.

Abandoned wells

A recent Stanford University study estimated there are between 475,000 and 750,000 abandoned oil and gas wells in Pennsylvania. DEP has almost no resources to plug them. Methane leakage from abandoned wells account for about 5 to 8 percent of the commonwealth’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Conclusion

The Pennsylvania General Assembly and Gov. Tom Wolf have the responsibility to adequately fund DEP. Its allocation should be substantially increased in this year’s budget.