On Feb. 4, Gov. Tom Wolf will propose a commonwealth budget for fiscal year 2021. This budget should address the chronic understaffing and underfunding of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).
Wolf’s budget last year did not propose any increases in DEP staffing and, not surprisingly, the final budget approved by the Pennsylvania General Assembly contained none. Unless the governor takes a leadership role in strengthening the DEP, it will remain in its weakened state.
The DEP has suffered an almost 30% reduction in staff since 2002, losing over 900 positions. This staff reduction has compromised the department’s ability to monitor and reduce air and water pollution, regulate oil and gas development, plug abandoned oil and gas wells, clean up hazardous sites, and protect the Chesapeake Bay.
DEP’s Bureau of Air Quality has eliminated 99 positions since 2000. A 2018 DEP air program report indicated that “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 and welfare of the citizens of this Commonwealth.”
The DEP’s Office of Oil and Gas Management has lost 36 positions — down to 190 — since 2016. This program has the responsibility of reviewing drilling permit applications, respond to complaints, inspect well sites, prevent pollution, and develop policy guidelines and regulations. According to a high placed official in this program, they are “failing” in their mission.
The DEP has nowhere near the funds it needs to plug the over 200,000 unplugged, orphaned, and abandoned oil and gas wells in Pennsylvania. These wells create a risk of explosion from gas leaks, which could cause death and property damage. The wells also leak brine and oil into streams and groundwater. The DEP has plugged only 23 wells in the last three years.
In August 2018, the DEP estimated its clean water program needed an additional 63 staffers. The program’s greatest needs are in administration, inspections, and surface water assessments. Only two additional staffers have been added since 2018.
Pennsylvania’s poor progress in reducing pollution runoff from its 33,600 farms in the Chesapeake Bay watershed threatens local rivers and streams, as well as the recovery of the Chesapeake Bay. In December, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found that Pennsylvania’s federally mandated bay cleanup plan fell 25% short of meeting its nitrogen reduction goals. The EPA also found Pennsylvania had failed to identify where it would get the $1.9 billion needed to implement this plan. On Jan. 8, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan directed his attorney general to sue Pennsylvania for failing to meet its pollution reduction goals.
Pennsylvania’s hazardous sites cleanup program provides the DEP with the funding to clean up contaminated sites where hazardous substances such as toxic chemicals have been released. In 2013, this program had 245 employees. Currently, it has only about 193. This staff depletion, by the DEP’s own admission, has hindered its ability to manage the program’s core functions. This problem will only get worse because the cleanup of PFAS sites has been added to the program’s responsibilities.
Former DEP Secretary David Hess had it right when he recently told the Courier Times, “The people that run the General Assembly these days don’t want to make any investments in the environment.” So it is up to Gov. Wolf to take a leadership role. Proposing a budget on Feb. 4 that properly funds the DEP would be a good first step.