Vitali: Environmental Protection needs more funding

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has been woefully underfunded for years. This is primarily due to a Republican controlled state legislature, which has consistently pushed for DEP budget cuts. Unless Gov. Tom Wolf makes environmental funding a priority in current budget negotiations, the status quo will continue.

The commonwealth is expected to enact its fiscal year 2021-22 budget by the end of this month. There are essentially three parties at the bargaining table: House Republican leaders, Senate Republicans leaders, and the governor. As the Republican leaders have shown no interest in increased environmental protection funding, it is up to Gov. Wolf to fight for a stronger DEP. The commonwealth's General Fund revenues for the 2020-21 fiscal year are expected to finish more than $3 billion above official estimate, so lack of money is no excuse.

The best measure of DEP’s strength over time is its number of filled positions, i.e., the number of people paid to come to work each day. In 2003, the DEP had 3,311 filled positions. This January, it had 917 less positions. That is about a 28% reduction in staff over the last 18 years. This percent staff reduction is almost double that of all commonwealth agencies over the same period.

This lack of resources has compromised the department’s ability to regulate oil and gas development, monitor and reduce air and water pollution, clean up hazardous sites, and protect the Chesapeake Bay. 

Oil and Gas program

The Department’s Oil and Gas Program has oversight over the almost 80,000 Pennsylvania oil and gas wells now in production. In 2015, this program had 226 filled positions. Today, it’s down to 190 positions. In December, a high-ranking DEP official publicly stated the program is “in very bad shape.”

Additionally, the Oil and Gas Program has responsibility for plugging the estimated 200,000 orphaned or abandoned oil and gas wells in Pennsylvania. These wells can leak methane (a powerful greenhouse gas) and contaminate ground and surface water. Due to limited resources, DEP has plugged only nine wells this year to date.

Air Quality Program

In 2005, the DEP’s Air Quality Program had 349 filled positions. Currently it is down to 231 – a reduction of almost 34%. A 2018 DEP Air Program report requesting additional staffing indicated “… fewer Department staff to conduct inspections, respond to complaints, and pursue enforcement actions will result in less oversight of regulated industry [and] … reduced protection of the environment and public health …”

Clean Water Program

There has been about a 25% decrease in staffing for the Clean Water Program since 2007. DEP says the program needs to add 63 positions “to implement its clean water objectives.” At current staffing levels, the DEP “is concerned that acute and chronic pollution problems may go undetected for many years.”

Chesapeake Bay

About half of the land area of Pennsylvania drains into the Chesapeake Bay. Pennsylvania’s poor progress in reducing its agricultural runoff threatens the health and recovery of the bay. In December 2019, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found that Pennsylvania’s bay cleanup plan fell 25% short of meeting its nitrogen reduction goals and Pennsylvania’s plan failed to identify where it would get the money needed to reach these reduction goals. This April, six U.S. senators from the Chesapeake Bay region wrote a letter to the EPA asking it to use all tools at its disposal to make sure that Pennsylvania reached its pollution targets.

Hazardous Sites Cleanup Program

DEP’s Hazardous Sites Cleanup program (HSCA) is responsible for remediating contaminated sites where hazardous substances, such as PFAS, have been released. In 2013, this program had 245 employees. As of May, it was down to 205.  If HSCA doesn’t receive additional funding, “DEP will have to shut down or delay existing cleanup projects and not take on any new cleanups, reduce or discontinue brownfield grants and not respond to any new contaminated sites unless they present immediate threats,” according to former DEP Sec. David Hess.

Budget negotiations will likely be concluded in a couple of weeks. Now is the time that concerned citizens should tell Gov. Wolf and their state representatives and senators that the DEP needs more funding.

State Representative Greg Vitali (D., Delaware, Montgomery) is the Democratic Chairman of the House Environmental Resource and Energy Committee. E-mail: