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Staffing and funding cuts put Pa. water quality at risk

In the last decade, the quality of public drinking water in Pennsylvania has been placed at increasing risk because adequate DEP oversight has been made increasingly more difficult by budget cuts.

The Pennsylvania Capitol building in Harrisburg.
The Pennsylvania Capitol building in Harrisburg.Read moreMatt Rourke / Associated Press

I know I don't need to remind Pennsylvanians how important water is to our quality of life.

What you might not have considered, though, is who is responsible for protecting your water to assure that it's safe to drink, and further, how that responsibility is directly related to our state budget.

Since 1985, federal authorities have entrusted Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) with implementing the requirements of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, with the expectation that the commonwealth would maintain standards at least as stringent as those of the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

In those more than 30 years, Pennsylvania has proven it is up to the challenge of protecting the public water supplies. And the universe of that protection has grown — DEP now regulates for 93 separate microbiological, chemical, and radiological contaminants in drinking water.

We've helped our public water systems grow with the times as well, providing technical, managerial, and financial assistance to ensure they are sustainable and protect public health. Today, Pennsylvania is ranked third in the nation for the number of public water systems, with more than 8,500 supplying safe and potable water to 10.7 million customers. More than 83 percent of all Pennsylvanians rely on those public water supplies.

We are proud of the overall performance of those systems, staffed with professionals who care deeply about the product they provide 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. We know what those operators are doing because DEP field sanitarians inspect these plants, review their monitoring data, and manage compliance and enforcement determinations. The plant operators in Pennsylvania generally do their best to provide safe drinking water.

In the last decade, though, the quality of public drinking water in Pennsylvania has been placed at increasing risk because adequate oversight has been made increasingly more difficult by annual decreases in DEP's budget.

This past December, I received a letter from the EPA leadership that I wish I had not received, but that every Pennsylvania resident should read. The director of EPA's Regional Water Protection Division used words like "not sustainable," "performance will continue to suffer," and "failed to meet the federal requirement." To some degree, we couldn't argue. EPA granted us primacy based on minimum expectations that are clear. As EPA noted, we aren't meeting them.

"For the last six years, the number of sanitary survey inspections completed by DEP has significantly declined," EPA noted.

That's accurate. Our staffing levels have decreased as cuts to our annual budget have climbed. In 2009-10, the sanitarians DEP had on staff completed almost 3,200 inspections. In 2015-16, that number fell to 1,847 (where 91 percent of the systems met the standard). EPA knew why the drop-off on inspections was so steep: DEP just doesn't have the manpower.

That's how we got to a letter that does the painful math. The national average for public water systems per sanitarian inspector is 67; DEP's average is 149.

EPA considers this unacceptable, and frankly, so do I.

Water quality must never be political. But, then, budgets aren't just a matter of financial equations. Underfunding DEP began more than a decade ago. Now in 2017, DEP staffing overall is 64 percent of what is was in 2007. Of 750 positions cut, 457 positions inspected regulated facilities and reviewed permits for new facilities or amendments to existing ones — work that protects our public health and environment while keeping our economy moving. And it should be expected that permit applications and inspection workload demands have increased.

And now, a budget proposed by the state House Republicans would reduce DEP's current budget by 5.5 percent, which puts water quality, air quality, dam safety, miner safety, and the environment at direct risk.

Gov. Wolf has directed DEP to move forward with a rule-making proposal to increase permit fees and establish new annual fees to address the funding gap, while at the same time rightly insisting upon continued excellence in our regulatory oversight. At a time when the governor is looking for resources to protect public health, the House bill would move us in exactly the wrong direction.

While Pennsylvania's air, land, and water remain generally healthy, we've received similar letters of citation from the EPA for understaffing coal-mine inspections, air-quality monitoring, and stormwater management programs. The EPA has urged us to address our funding challenges and fill personnel shortfalls, and we're attempting to do just that by proposing new annual fees and increasing existing permit fees for our public water systems.

We believe strongly that the public expects confidence that their drinking water is safe. The only way to provide that is for DEP to have the staff to keep regulatory watch on their behalf.

More with less — that's been a mantra of government budgeting since time immemorial. But as DEP's budget declines, so does its ability to achieve the agency's goals — to "protect Pennsylvania's air, land, and water from pollution, and to provide for the health and safety of our citizens."

Patrick McDonnell is secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. @SecMcDonnell