Greg Vitali | Pa. environmental protection must be strengthened | Columns
The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has been under-resourced for years.
This is due primarily to a Republican-controlled legislature that has starved it of funding. The DEP must be provided with adequate money and staffing in the upcoming commonwealth budget.
The DEP is Pennsylvania’s environmental “cop on the beat.” Its job is to enforce Pennsylvania’s environmental laws and regulations.
The best (although imperfect) measure of DEP’s strength overtime is its number of filled positions – i.e., the number of people paid to come to work each day. In 2003, the DEP had 3,311 filled positions.
In January it had 917 fewer positions. That is about a 28% reduction in staff during the past 18 years.
The 2021 Wolf budget proposed no increase in DEP staff.
This lack of resources has compromised the department’s ability to regulate oil and gas development, monitor and reduce air and water pollution, clean up hazardous sites and protect the Chesapeake Bay.
Oil and gas program
DEP’s oil and gas program has oversight the almost 80,000 Pennsylvania oil and gas wells now in production.
In 2015, this program had 226 filled positions. Now, it’s down to 190 positions. In January 2020, DEP said it needed 49 additional staff to adequately administer the program. To date it has received no additional help. In December, a high-ranking DEP official publicly stated the program is “in very bad shape.”
The oil and gas program also has responsibility for plugging the estimated 200,000 orphaned or abandoned oil and gas wells in Pennsylvania.
These wells can leak methane (a powerful greenhouse gas) and contaminate ground and surface water. Last year, DEP plugged only 17 of these wells. At this rate it would take DEP about 12,000 years to plug them all.
Air quality program
In 2005, the DEP’s air quality program had 349 filled positions. As of last July, it was down to 265 – a reduction of 24%. A 2018 DEP air program report requesting additional staffing indicated “… fewer department staff to conduct inspections, respond to complaints and pursue enforcement actions will result in less oversight of regulated industry … (and) … reduced protection of the environment and public health …”
Clean water program
There has been about a 25% decrease in staffing for the clean water program since 2007. DEP says the program needs to add 63 positions “to implement its clean water objectives.” At current staffing levels, the DEP “is concerned that acute and chronic pollution problems may go undetected for many years.”
About half of the land area of Pennsylvania drains into the Chesapeake Bay. Pennsylvania’s poor progress in reducing its agricultural runoff threatens the health and recovery of the bay. In December 2019, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found that Pennsylvania’s bay cleanup plan fell 25% short of meeting its nitrogen reduction goals and Pennsylvania’s plan failed to identify where it would get the money needed to reach these reduction goals.
Last September, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia filed suit against the EPA for its failure to require Pennsylvania to live up to its pollution reduction obligations.
Hazardous sites cleanup program
DEP’s hazardous sites cleanup program (HSCA) is responsible for remediating contaminated sites where hazardous substances such as PFAS have been released.
In 2013, this program had 245 employees. Now it is down to 200. If HSCA doesn’t receive additional funding, “DEP will have to shut down or delay existing cleanup projects and not take on any new cleanups, reduce or discontinue brownfield grants and not respond to any new contaminated sites unless they present immediate threats,” according to former DEP Secretary David Hess.