HARRISBURG - Hobbled by years of shrinking budgets and now facing a complete loss of funding by Dec. 31, Pennsylvania's hazardous-sites cleanup program is running on fumes, attending to only the most serious threats to public health.

In a chilling assessment delivered yesterday at a legislative hearing, the state's chief of environmental protection called the scaled-back program "an extraordinary deviation from our operations."

Kathleen C. McGinty asked the Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee for "as much investment as possible" in critical tasks ranging from mopping up toxic spills and monitoring Superfund sites to testing wells for pollutants and disposing of homeowners' leftover paint. Pressed to say how much money would be required annually, she replied, "Forty to 45 million."

Although the full General Assembly has been back from summer recess only one day, two bills already have emerged to keep the Hazardous Sites Cleanup Act fund afloat through year's end. A third would keep it running for three years.

None of the bills, however, provides the long-term, dedicated source of money that McGinty and environmental groups contend is necessary.

Those charged with cleaning up polluted sites should not need to "be coming to the well every 16 months for validation," said David Masur, director of PennEnvironment, a Philadelphia advocacy group of 15,000 members. "A state with a long industry history will have a long industrial-cleanup process."

Since its start in 1988, the program has, in fact, had a dedicated funding source: a levy on businesses called the capital stock and franchise tax. By the early 1990s, the tax was producing $60 million annually for cleanups and other environmental emergencies. However, to make Pennsylvania more corporate-friendly, the state began phasing out the business tax in 2002, with the intention of eliminating it by Dec. 31, 2010.

The program's annual infusion has dipped to $35 million.

"The only reason, frankly, we are not completely out of business is I have been very conservative" in managing the program over the last four years, McGinty said in an interview last week.

In 1992, the staff numbered 327; today, it is down to 285, including 34 vacancies. At any given time, about 150 sites need attention; dozens of additional tracts await treatment in preparation for revitalization projects.

"We have dramatically cut back in terms of the cleanups we've been doing," McGinty said. "We've literally gone through every property where we're active and drew a line at simply addressing the most immediate threat to public health but not actually fixing the problem."

In "innumerable" instances of groundwater contamination, she added, limited money has forced a "truncated" response.

In Montgomery County's Lower Providence Township, for example, dichloroethylene, an organic compound used in the manufacture of various materials, was detected in March in some drinking-water wells; an investigation to find its source is on hold.

In such cases, McGinty said, "I have kept the dollars flowing in order to provide bottled drinking water or in-house carbon-filtration systems." But "the normal fix - identify where the toxin is, dig it up, extend a public water line . . . we have cut off that activity . . . in the perpetual hope that the legislature would put in place permanent funding."

Such proposals have not gained traction, however. They've included a plan backed by Gov. Rendell that would increase the trash tipping fee, a dumping tax. Another would involve bottle returns and refunds.

The most controversial attempt to find money was in June - and it nearly derailed passage of the state budget. To the relief of conservationists, it now appears to be dead.

Denounced by special-interest groups and lawmakers alike as a shortsighted "robbing-Peter-to-pay-Paul" remedy, Senate Bill 913 would have diverted $40 million a year to the program from the $86 million budget of the Keystone Recreation, Park and Conservation Fund. It ignited such bipartisan outrage that it had to be shelved before the state's $27.2 billion spending plan could pass July 16.

That night, State Rep. Marguerite Quinn (R., Bucks) issued an adamant call to her departing colleagues to make "a serious effort" to solve the program's money troubles "that first week we're back" from summer recess.

Montgomery County legislators Rick Taylor, a Democrat, and Mike Vereb, a Republican, did not wait that long. Last month, they met with environmental advocates to produce a bill that would transfer $30 million of the state's $690 million budget surplus to the program, ensuring funding through next June.

A virtually identical bill is being pushed in the Senate by Charles McIlhinney (R., Bucks).

A third bill, expected to be introduced as early as today, would reallocate $15 million from existing legislative accounts to see the program through June. Then, in the following three fiscal years, $40 million annually would be made available from the capital stock and franchise tax.

Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Chester) is one of the bill's primary cosponsors. The other is Mary Jo White (R., Venango), fresh off the drubbing she received for introducing the legislation that would have raided the Keystone Fund.

As chairman of the Senate committee that questioned McGinty yesterday, White expressed skepticism about the program's alleged dire straits and called for an audit, to which McGinty agreed.

She was not as quick to agree with White's next request: to support her funding bill. First, McGinty said, she would have to talk it over with the governor's office.

White noted Rendell's generosity toward the state's nascent movie industry, having approved $75 million in tax credits.

"Maybe we can make a movie about [the Hazardous Sites Cleanup Act]," she said, eliciting laughter in the hearing room.

Replied McGinty: "It certainly has been an ongoing drama."

Hazardous Sites Cleanup Fund

Total annual spending statewide:

Number of cleanup and remediation operations in the Philadelphia area:

SOURCE: Pa. Dept. of Environmental ProtectionEndText