2019-01-12 / Viewpoints

Let’s fund what really matters

By Rep. GReG Vitali

(Greg Vitali is a member of the Pa. House of Representatives whose 166th Legislative District include parts of Delaware and Montgomery counties.)

Our Pa. Dept. of Environmental Protection has been severely underfunded for years. This has compromised the department’s ability to protect public health and the environment. DEP has suffered almost a 30-percent reduction in staff since 2002, losing more than 900 positions.

Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration is preparing its fiscal year 2019/2020 budget proposal, which it will present to the Pa. General Assembly in February. This proposal should fully fund environmental protection in these areas:

• Air quality: 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, increasing the risk of harmful pollutant discharge.

Fewer companies are now being monitored and air monitoring viewed less frequently. This adversely affects the health of us data is being all.

• Oil and gas program: This division has lost 36 positions since 2016. This program reviews drilling permit applications, responds to complaints, inspects well sites, prevents pollution and develops regulations. “We are not doing any of these things well,” a program official confided in me. “We are failing in our mission.”

• Methane regulations: 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 – only one person has been assigned to this project.

• Abandoned wells: A DEP official estimates there are more than 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 will take about 17,500 years to plug all of them. (Editor’s Note: See Endeavor News, April 30, 2016, “Abandoned Wells: Ticking Bombs.”)

• Stream protection: By its own estimates, the DEP’s Bureau of Clean Water needs to restore 63 positions “to implement its clean water objectives.” The bureau does not have enough biologists to monitor waters 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.

• Chesapeake Bay: In July, Chesapeake Bay Foundation released a report concluding that Pennsylvania’s poor progress in reducing pollution runoff from its 33,600 farms in the bay watershed “threatens local rivers and streams as well as the recovery of downstream waters of the Chesapeake Bay.” DEP does not have the staff and resources necessary to carry out its Chesapeake Bay Restoration Strategy.

Sadly, DEP is in a deplorable condition. Wolf should not propose a budget which merely maintains or only slightly increases its funding. Rather, he should propose a budget which seriously attempts to address this problem.

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