Tapped Out: Pa. cuts gutted DEP’s water quality staff

By Wallace McKelvey - [email protected]
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Editor’s Note: This is the final re-published excerpt from PennLive’s “Tapped Out” water safety series to appear in the Times Leader. You can read the unabridged series at http://water.pennlive.com/.

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If you’ve held down a job in the last decade, there’s a good chance you’ve been told to do more with less. The people who make sure the water that flows from your tap doesn’t sicken you dealt with the same issue as Pennsylvania repeatedly cut funding.

“You don’t do more with less,” said one inspector. “You don’t get more training. You don’t do more sanitary surveys. You don’t do more enforcement. All you get is less with less.”

The DEP became a popular target of budget cuts in the past decade for an increasingly pro-business, anti-regulation General Assembly. Between 2008 and 2012, state funding for the agency nearly halved from $229 million to $125 million. In recent years, that figure crept upward again to $148 million. Had the agency’s 2008 budget kept pace with inflation, however, it would now be $271 million.

Red-tape averse Republican lawmakers often pointed to onerous regulation and a slow permitting process, particularly when it came to DEP oversight of natural gas drillers during the recent Marcellus Shale boom.

Cuts designed to lift roadblocks to industry growth affected all of the agency’s programs, including drinking water. They also proved counterproductive, slowing the pace of approvals for everything from gas wells to residential construction.

“You need to a do a more thoughtful review of this stuff rather than taking a meat ax to it — you need to identify what’s wrong and put resources into fixing it,” said David Hess, who served as environmental secretary under Republican Gov. Tom Ridge. The solutions, Hess said,“don’t fit on a bumper sticker” so lawmakers cut indiscriminately.

As the DEP contracted, losing some 750 positions — more than a fifth of its total workforce —between 2007 and 2017, drinking water inspectors saw their workloads increase. The job, with a current starting salary of about $40,000, already saw significant turnover due to retirements and new recruits moving up to better paying posts within state government. The cuts meant that departing inspectors weren’t replaced.

“Any time the budget gets cut, we have to go back and say, ‘We have ‘X’ number fewer staff’,’” said Lisa Daniels, who leads the state inspection program. “’What does that mean for how many (water systems) we can get to this year?’”

By the time of the EPA’s 2016 warning, each inspector was responsible for an average of 149 water systems. A 2012 survey by the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators showed a national average of 67.

To understand how short staffing impacts public health, it’s helpful to define the scope of the DEP’s drinking water program.

First, the DEP does not oversee private wells. If a home has its own well, the owner is responsible for routine maintenance and water testing.

A test for total coliform bacteria, which can cause flu-like symptoms and gastrointestinal upset, costs $15 to $30.

Roughly 20,000 new private wells are drilled each year but, aside from some local and county ordinances, there are no construction standards.

An estimated 3.5 million Pennsylvanians rely on private wells. The rest of the state, some 10 million people, get their water primarily from public systems.

Each of the state’s roughly 8,500 public systems are subject to a sanitary survey, a comprehensive inspection in which an inspector checks equipment, treatment and water sources to ensure everything is in working order and to identify any problems.

The inspector’s bible, chapter 109, is some 600 pages long.

The science of drinking water is still in its infancy— Pennsylvania began regulating drinking water in 1905 and Congress passed the Safe Drinking Water Act in 1974 — so best practices are constantly updated as new contaminants are identified. One example: Lead, which can lower IQ and cause a host of behavioral and physical symptoms, wasn’t banned from pipes until 1986. (The budget cuts also hurt this area: For several years, training was minimal, although DEP officials plan to redouble efforts this year.)

Community water systems receive a sanitary survey once every three years. These types of utilities provide water to the same population year round and include municipal authorities, mobile home parks, and residential developments. Non-community water systems, which include businesses, campgrounds and schools, must be inspected once every five years.

The number of full inspections completed each year fell in tandem with the DEP’s budget. According to EPA data, inspectors completed 3,177 surveys in fiscal year 2009. By 2015, that number dropped to 1,847. Meanwhile, the number of violations that inspectors identified but were never resolved spiked from 4,298 to 7,922, even with fewer inspectors on the ground. In fiscal year 2017, state inspectors visited about 19 percent of the state’s water systems, well below the national average of 37 percent.

The recently enacted budget includes a $5.6 million increase for the DEP. That would help pay for the hiring of 17 trainees and a variety of other new hires, 33 in all, that include compliance specialists,engineers and geologists that are desperately needed within the drinking water program.

“It’s not going to get better immediately because we need to get those folks trained,” Daniels said, “but once we get this in place, we’ll be closer to where we need to be.”

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By Wallace McKelvey

[email protected]