The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has been severely underfunded for years. This has compromised the department’s ability to protect public health and the environment. Gov. Wolf’s proposed budget for 2019-20 should restore needed resources.
The DEP has suffered almost a 30 percent reduction in staff since 2002, losing over 900 positions by the 2017-18 fiscal year. This has compromised its ability to reduce air and water pollution, regulate oil and gas development, combat climate change, plug abandoned oil and gas wells, and protect the Chesapeake Bay.
Currently, the Wolf administration is preparing its fiscal year budget proposal, which it will present to the Assembly in early February. This proposal should replenish funding for environmental protection to make strides on these issues:
Air quality. The DEP doesn’t have sufficient personnel to monitor air quality. A 2018 EPA audit determined the DEP’s air quality monitoring division was “severely understaffed." This understaffing has increased the risk of harmful pollutant discharge, and of air quality data not being properly reviewed. This adversely affects the health of us all.
Oil and gas program. The DEP oil and gas program has lost 36 positions — down to 190 — since 2016.
This program has the responsibility to review drilling permit applications, respond to complaints, inspect well sites, prevent pollution, and develop policy guidelines and regulations. “We are not doing any of these things well," a program official confided in me. “We are failing in our mission."
Methane regulations. As the Wolf administration has acknowledged, reducing fugitive methane emissions from natural gas operations is an essential step needed to combat climate change. Three years ago the administration announced its intent to develop regulations for the thousands of existing sources of methane leakage. To date these regulations have not been completed. The delay, according to one DEP insider, is insufficient staffing.
Abandoned wells. A DEP official estimates there are 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. It costs about $35,000 to plug a well. At current funding levels, it would take about 17,500 years to plug all of them.
Stream protection. By its own estimates, the DEP’s Bureau of Clean Water needs to restore 63 positions to fully comply with federal and state regulations. The bureau does not have enough staff to monitor the waters of the commonwealth or take action to protect precious high-quality streams in a timely manner. This lack of staffing has increased the risk of improper pollutant discharges into Pennsylvania waterways.
Chesapeake Bay. In July, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation released a report concluding that Pennsylvania’s poor progress in reducing pollution runoff from its 33,600 farms into the bay watershed “threatens local rivers and streams as well as the recovery of downstream waters of the Chesapeake Bay." The DEP has conceded it does not have the staff and resources necessary to carry out its Chesapeake Bay restoration strategy.
Gov. Wolf should not propose a budget which merely maintains or only slightly increases DEP funding. Rather, we need funding that seriously addresses these problems.