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Budget cuts hamper environmental protection

Pennsylvania environmental officials have spent the last week hunched over spreadsheets, trying to figure out how to lessen the impact of the largest budget cuts in recent memory.

Pennsylvania environmental officials have spent the last week hunched over spreadsheets, trying to figure out how to lessen the impact of the largest budget cuts in recent memory.

While climate change and energy issues may be near the top of the national agenda, the deal that ended the state's budget crisis this month slashed funding for the Department of Environmental Protection by 27 percent.

The cut, one of the largest among state agencies, leaves the DEP with significantly fewer inflation-adjusted dollars than it had well over a decade ago.

The financial crisis forced dozens of states to slice various parts of their budgets, most of them many months ago.

New Jersey reduced funding for its Department of Environmental Protection by 11 percent - a hefty cut, but less than what was taken from Education (12 percent), Human Services (14 percent), and Health and Senior Services (27 percent).

The New Jersey DEP, which carries out many of the same activities that in Pennsylvania are divided mainly by two agencies, went from $434.2 million a year ago to $388.2 million now - and from 3,070 employees to 2,979.

The harder decisions have yet to be made in Pennsylvania, a DEP spokeswoman there said, but observers believe layoffs are inevitable and could be anywhere from 150 to 400 people, as much as 14 percent of the staff.

They fear enforcement could be compromised and permit applications stalled.

"If you care about environmental protection, the budget is a disaster," said David Masur, director of PennEnvironment, a statewide citizen-based advocacy group.

DEP spokeswoman Teresa Candori said officials were going over every line item. "They're trying to determine the most efficient way to use every dollar," she said.

Some critics say the financial hemorrhaging in Harrisburg - DEP funding plunged from $217.5 million last year to $159.1 million this year - was a deliberate attempt to undermine the department.

"I think the fact that the DEP was cut so severely is a reflection of a certain animosity among certain Republican senators," said State Rep. Gregory S. Vitali (D., Delaware). He declined to name anyone.

State Sen. Mary Jo White (R., Venango), environment committee chair in the GOP-controlled Senate, said the agency was not singled out.

Bigger hits were taken by one large Pennsylvania department - Community and Economic Development (53 percent) - and two smaller agencies: Emergency Management (30 percent) and the Historical and Museum Commission (29 percent).

But pairing the DEP cut with a 19 percent reduction for its sister agency, the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, makes the situation worse, advocates said.

With a projected increase in natural gas drilling in the state's Marcellus Shale formation, both agencies are facing increased responsibilities even as their funding is going down "and that's a bad thing," said State Rep. Bryan R. Lentz (D., Delaware).

The budget cuts "raise significant doubts about the capacity of both agencies to fulfill their missions," said Donald S. Welsh, president of the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, an advocacy group.

Welsh and others say a new requirement for DCNR to lease enough public forest land for natural gas drilling to generate $60 million in revenue amounts to an improper sell-off of natural resources.

The last sale of natural gas leases, in 2008, resulted in $166 million for leases on 74,000 acres, DCNR spokeswoman Christina Novak said.

Private land owners recently have been getting about $5,500 an acre for similar leases, Novak said. That means the state would have to lease more than 10,000 additional acres to bring in the $60 million.

To meet shortfalls, some state parks have already shortened their seasons, and staffers have prepared a list of parks that could close altogether.

Over at DEP, funding for programs that provide grants on high-priority initiatives such as energy efficiency and climate change were cut to zero.

And while officials have said the state's water and sewer infrastructure is all but in crisis, grants for sewage facilities planning were cut 46 percent and for enforcement, 39 percent.

White, the GOP Senate committee chair, said the cuts are not as radical as they may seem.

In several cases, she said, funding is available from elsewhere. For instance, she said, the General Assembly approved $1.2 billion last year for water infrastructure projects, and the state has received $220 million in federal stimulus funds for water and sewer projects.

The DEP also stands to gain $20 million annually through new fee increases it has approved or probably will soon, she said.

"Certainly, DEP has taken budgetary hits because of the state's deficit, as has nearly every state agency," White said in a statement. "But I do not believe these cuts have disproportionately targeted DEP's ability to enforce Pennsylvania's environmental laws."

Anticipating deep cuts, the agency had already scaled back programs to control black flies and the mosquitoes that carry West Nile virus, said Candori, the spokeswoman.

Elam Herr, assistant executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of Township Supervisors, said municipalities will be stuck having to meet state mandates - such as stormwater-management planning - without the funds they've relied on to do so.

"If you need new sewer connections, if you need to drill a well, if you want to open up another section of a landfill, whatever you could possibly need an environmental permit for, will there be sufficient staff?" said John Brosious, deputy director of the Pennsylvania Municipal Authorities Association.

And if permit applications languish, said the Environmental Council's Welsh, "it becomes tough to attract businesses to Pennsylvania. That may continue the economic doldrums that have necessitated budget-cutting" in the first place.

Democratic leaders said they approved the agreement despite severe misgivings. The votes two weeks ago ended the longest budget impasse in the nation.

"I can no longer be party to blowing up the budget agreement when there are no guarantees that a better deal is achievable," State Rep. Camille "Bud" George (D., Clearfield) wrote to his colleagues during negotiations.

George's advice for DEP Secretary John Hanger is to "pray" - pray that the onslaught of invasive pests eases; pray that dangerous chemical spills at drilling sites "miraculously do not occur again."