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Poor drinking water oversight could have ‘serious public health implications’ for Pennsylvanians, EPA says By Wallace McKelvey | WMckelvey@pennlive.com The Patriot-News

Poor drinking water oversight could have ‘serious public health implications’ for Pennsylvanians, EPA says

By Wallace McKelvey | WMckelvey@pennlive.com The Patriot-News
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on February 01, 2017 at 8:21 PM, updated February 02, 2017 at 6:04 AM

Pennsylvania’s failure to enforce safe drinking water standards due to inadequate staffing could have “serious public health implications,” according to federal regulators, and cost the state millions in federal funding.

That warning came in a Dec. 30 letter from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to the Department of Environmental Protection, which oversees drinking water inspections.

At a time of major budget cuts, the DEP’s inspections of public water systems fell from 3,177 in the 2009-10 fiscal year to 1,847 in 2015-16, according to the EPA. The number of unaddressed violations doubled over the last five years, from 4,298 to 7,922; and those figures don’t account for violations that may have gone unnoticed. “Not completing sanitary survey inspections in a timely manner can have serious public health implications as major violations could be going unidentified,” wrote Jon Capacasa, the director of the EPA’s Water Protection Division who retired last month.

Federal regulators gave the department 60 days to outline a plan to address deficiencies in its oversight of public water systems. Capacasa also warned that failure to meet the requirements of the Safe Drinking Water Act could result in the state losing primacy. That could mean a federal takeover of enforcement and the forfeiture of millions in federal funding.

“We don’t have the resources to protect the environment anymore,” said Larry Schweiger, president of the advocacy group PennFuture. “The safety net has huge holes in it.”

DEP spokesman Neil Shader said the DEP shares the EPA’s concern about staffing levels and resources. The agency, he said, is still drafting its formal response.

“The EPA’s concerns are well-founded, and without additional investment, the problems outlined by [the] EPA will continue to be exacerbated,” he said, in a written statement. “DEP is discussing means of addressing these shortfalls in conjunction with its technical advisory committee representing water systems.”

Pennsylvania’s flagging drinking water enforcement coincides with a period of budget cuts that have impacted virtually every area the agency regulates. A PennLive analysis showed that the DEP’s enacted budget has fallen 35 percent since 2008 despite incremental increases during the administration of Gov. Tom Wolf.

Had the agency’s 2008 budget of $229 million kept pace with inflation, it would now be $255 million. Instead, the DEP was allocated $148 million last year.

“When you have eight or so years of not making environmental protection a priority, you wind up in this kind of situation where [the DEP] doesn’t have the resources it needs to carry out its basic functions,” said Steve Hvozdovich, Pennsylvania campaign director for Clean Water Action, a water quality advocacy group.

Don Hershey, executive director of Pennsylvania’s American Water Works Association, declined comment Wednesday. The group, which represents public water systems, was waiting to see the DEP’s response, he said.

In the December letter, the EPA noted that Pennsylvania’s drinking water inspectors are responsible for, on average, 149 public water systems each. The national average, according to a 2012 survey by the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators, was 67.

At that level, the EPA official wrote, the state couldn’t keep pace with the minimum required number of inspections of once every three years for community water supplies and once every five years for non-community supplies, a category that includes schools.

Clean water advocates pointed to the kinds of public health emergencies seen in places like Flint, Michigan, as the kind of crisis that could arise without proper oversight. In that city, a change in water supply resulted in corroded pipes that leached high levels of toxic lead into drinking water.

On Wednesday, the same day that the EPA’s letter was first reported by NPR, 100,000 Pittsburgh residents were placed under a boil water advisory and 22 schools were closed to students after officials detected low levels of chlorine, a disinfectant, at the Highland Park reservoir and distribution facility. The low chlorine levels could have allowed a microscopic parasite to grow in the city’s water supply.

Capacasa, the EPA official, noted that a November 2016 review of the state’s enforcement of lead and copper levels in water supplies found that “a large amount of pertinent information was missing from the files that were reviewed.” An impending report, he wrote, “intends to highlight insufficient program personnel in its findings and recommendations.”

Schweiger said lead is a serious problem, particularly in Pittsburgh, where a lot of lead pipes need to be replaced.

“Lead in drinking water is being ingested by children,” he said. “We’ve known for years that it interferes with mental development and, at high enough levels, can significantly handicap a kid’s development.”

Pennsylvanians, who have a right to clean water through the state constitution, rely on the DEP to monitor water quality, Schweiger said. The equipment to detect bacteria, metals and other toxins is far too expensive for the average person to access.

In the absence of any other option, Schweiger said citizens should call upon their elected officials to ensure the state’s environmental regulators are adequately funded.

Of course, there’s another wildcard in the mix.

In his first two weeks in office, President Donald Trump has overseen a number of measures to limit federal oversight and silence regulators from making public statements. The former head of his EPA transition team, meanwhile, told the Washington Post that his goal was to reduce the EPA’s staffing by two-thirds.

Scott Pruitt, Trump’s pick to run the EPA, shuttered Oklahoma’s environmental protection unit as that state’s attorney general and repeatedly sued the EPA to roll back federal regulation. Pruitt has not yet been confirmed by the U.S. Senate. On Wednesday, Senate Democrats boycotted a vote on his appointment.

It’s unclear what will happen to the EPA’s oversight of Pennsylvania’s drinking water enforcement during the Trump administration, or to the EPA’s 60-day deadline for the DEP to respond to the issues raised.

“I’m willing to bet, if it wasn’t for the EPA, the public wouldn’t know about this,” Hvozdovich said. “That shows the need to have a strong EPA in this process. The Trump administration’s desire to scale back the EPA is concerning.”

 

 

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