The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection is working on a plan to avoid losing control over its safe drinking water program, along with millions in federal dollars.
Back in late December, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sent a letter warning the state it does not have enough staff or financial resources to properly enforce clean water standards, which could be grounds for the EPA to revoke Pennsylvania’s primacy and a significant chunk of federal funding.
During the DEP’s budget hearing Monday, much of the conversation centered on the EPA’s warning as lawmakers on both sides of the aisle asked Acting Secretary Patrick McDonnell what it would take to avoid those consequences.
McDonnell said the departments’s plan would raise fees on the state’s 8,600 public water systems. That would bring in $7.5 million, about half of what the state chips in to run the program. The other half would come from the state’s general fund, he said. The remainder of the program is funded by the federal government to the tune of $11.2 million.
McDonnell said the plan would also allow the agency to hire 33 new staffers to do inspections.
“The acute public health impacts specifically within the drinking water program are job one for us,” he told lawmakers.
The department’s lack of resources has caused the number of unaddressed Safe Drinking Water Act violations in Pennsylvania to nearly double in the past five years to almost 8,000, according to the EPA’s letter.
Over the last 20 years, the department has seen its appropriations from the state’s general fund consistently cut, and McDonnell noted the drinking water program has taken the biggest hit.
“When you cut the general fund for the agency, you’re not cutting the general fund for the agency,” he said. “For example, our air program is basically 100 percent funded by fees, fines and penalties… The area of the department that was most impacted by general fund cuts has been water.”
Now, the department is looking for ways to cover the shortfall by increasing permit and annual fees on the state’s public water systems. McDonnell said the specifics of the fee package are still being worked out and the plan would need to be approved by the state’s Environmental Quality Board. He hopes the fee increases will go into effect in the next fiscal year.
According to a draft of the proposal, public water suppliers would likely pass along the fees to consumers who would pay anywhere from $.35 to $10 more per year, depending on the size of the system.
State Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-Montgomery) was among several lawmakers who asked why — given its long-standing funding woes and the EPA’s warning — the department is only requesting a one percent general fund increase over last year. Some towns in Dean’s district have been plagued by water contamination problems.
“We have an obligation to fund through the general fund safe drinking water,” Dean said. “I urge you and the administration to ask us to do our job and fund it.”
“I am absolutely available for any conversation around that,” McDonnell replied.
Note: This story has been clarified to reflect that the $7.5 million that could be raised by the fee package plan is about half of what the state pays into the safe drinking water program, not the total program cost.