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DEP has a plan for keeping Pa.’s drinking water safe–but it may be two years away By Wallace McKelvey |

DEP has a plan for keeping Pa.’s drinking water safe–but it may be two years away

Wallace McKelvey | By Wallace McKelvey |

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on February 27, 2017 at 3:42 PM, updated February 27, 2017 at 3:56 PM


State regulators hope to address the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s warning of “serious public health implications” due to inadequate drinking water oversight by raising $7.5 million in new fees paid by public water systems.


That proposal, however, could take two years or more to work through the regulatory process. The DEP needs to come up with a plan or risk an EPA takeover.


Each inspector now monitors 149 public water systems, on average. That’s far too many to meet the minimum requirements of the Safe Drinking Water Act, the EPA wrote in a Dec. 30 notice to the state Department of Environmental Protection.


Federal regulators also noted that the number of inspections fell 42 percent over the last five years. The number of violations that went unaddressed at water utilities nearly doubled from 4,298 to 7,922 over the same period.


Patrick McDonnell, the state’s acting DEP secretary, said Monday that drinking water safety was “job No. 1” for the agency. But he also noted that securing the $7.5 million to hire 33 new inspectors could take 18 months to two years — and possibly even longer.


“This has been a renewed area of emphasis since I’ve come in and it’s something we’ll continue to focus on,” he told PennLive. “At the same time, I’m managing the agency that I have and the resources that I have.”


A number of lawmakers, however, say that timetable is not good enough.


Rep. Madeleine Dean, a Montgomery County Democrat, said residents find themselves caught between an insufficiently funded state DEP and an EPA that will likely scale back its oversight under President Donald Trump.


“That’s a scary combination,” she said, after a House budget hearing. “If we’re in a pre-Flint moment, what are we going to do when we look back five years from now?”


In Flint, Michigan, a change in water supply resulted in corroded pipes that leached high levels of toxic lead into drinking water. Poor oversight by state and local officials there contributed to a major public health emergency.


Dean said it should be the responsibility of the state–and not private water suppliers–to ensure adequate funding to protect drinking water. She pointed to language in the state constitution that guarantees the “right to clean air, pure water and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment.”


During Monday’s budget hearing, York County Republican and House Appropriations Committee Chair Stan Saylor also raised questions about whether the agency had enough money to fulfill its responsibilities and ward off a potential takeover by federal regulators.


Under Gov. Tom Wolf’s 2017-18 budget proposal, the DEP would see a less than 1 percent increase in state funding, to a total of $148 million. According to McDonnell, the additional $7.5 million would likely come in the 2018-19 fiscal year.


The DEP faced budget cuts during both the Rendell and Corbett administrations. Had the agency’s 2008 budget of $229 million kept pace with inflation, it would now be $255 million.


A Wolf administration spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.


McDonnell said the EPA raised valid concerns in its notice. In the interim, he believes the agency can bolster its drinking water program by reallocating resources where they are most needed. Despite Wolf’s efforts to hold staffing at December 2016 levels across all agencies, he said the DEP is attempting to fill vacancies in its drinking water program.


The environmental secretary pointed to the DEP’s work in Pittsburgh, where testing triggered a boil water advisory earlier this month, and in York, where aging pipes resulted in elevated lead levels. The agency, he said, is working with those communities and others to address drinking water problems.


“The primary responsibility remains on the water suppliers to demonstrate that they are providing a safe product,” McDonnell said. “Our responsibility is the oversight of that–that they’re doing the work properly.”


In Pennsylvania, local water suppliers perform routine water quality tests on their own. The DEP is charged with inspecting community water supplies once every three years and non-community supplies, such as schools, once every five years. According to the EPA, current DEP staffing means that those minimum requirements cannot be met.


In its Dec. 30 letter, the EPA raised the specter of stripping the DEP’s primacy over safe drinking water standards. Primacy is the ability for Pennsylvania to regulate itself. Without it, the EPA would be in charge of oversight at the local level. Meanwhile, the state could lose roughly $100 million in federal funds that water systems rely upon to help fund improvements.




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