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A man casts his line as he fishes for catfish in the Delaware River in view of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge in this May 19, 2016 file photo. (Matt Rourke/AP)
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rang the alarm about short staffing within Pennsylvania’s surface water pollution program several times, most recently in 2016.
One example: The state currently employs 14 biologists responsible to monitor 81,000 miles of waterway. That workload means it would take 30 years for them to complete federally mandated pollution assessments.
Why is that a problem?
It means serious pollution issues that could sicken anglers, nearby residents, swimmers and make treating drinking water more costly or difficult may go “undetected for many years,” according to regulatory documents filed by the state Department of Environmental Protection.
Based on assessments that have been completed, at least a third of Pennsylvania’s lakes and a fifth of its streams are already impaired for various uses.
Short-staffing also slows the processing of the kinds of permits housing complexes, industrial facilities, wastewater systems and an array of other major polluters are required to obtain, according to the EPA. It also means that the state is slow to respond to problems or offer advice to municipalities about recent changes to federal wastewater requirements.
If all of this sounds familiar, it’s because a succession of budget cuts over more than a decade left the DEP short staffed everywhere. PennLive has reported extensively on shortcomings in the agency’s drinking water and oil and gas programs.
The DEP had an authorized complement of 3,127 employees in 2009. That figure now sits at 2,509, although there are generally dozens of unfilled positions at any given point in time.
Over the last decade, amid state and federal budget cuts, the DEP turned increasingly to fees to fill the gap. That was the solution, for example, to its shortcomings in drinking water program last year.
In March, the DEP sought approval for increases to water quality permit fees the agency said would raise about $6 million and help it to hire 25 new employees across the surface water pollution program. The fees hikes would affect about 4,000 facilities statewide and roughly 500 water quality permit applicants each year.
One of the two types of affected permits, the Water Quality Management (WQM) permit which concerns wastewater treatment, hasn’t seen an increase since 1971. The National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) fee, which affects other types of polluters, was last increased in in 2010.
The WQM permit has remained $500 since 1971. Had the fee kept pace with inflation, it would now by $3,210. According to the DEP, many nearby states charge $10,000 or more for comparable industrial and municipal wastewater permits.
Its proposal would replace the one-size-fits-all WQM fee with a staggered one based on the size of the user and the type of waterway affected. New major industrial treatment facilities discharging to surface water would be charged $15,000 while a new minor sewage treatment facility would be charged $5,000.
The House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee voted this week to send a letter urging the Independent Regulatory Review Commission, the board charged to evaluating such regulations, to disapprove of the proposal.
“These fees should be correlated to the cost of processing the specific permits for which the fees are collected, not generally funding DEP’s Clean Water Program,” read the letter from the Republican members of the committee. The only Democratic member to sign was Pam Snyder, who represents Fayette, Green and Washington counties in the shale gas-rich southwest corner of the state.
Forty-three House lawmakers, led by Republican House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler, sent a separate letter opposing the fee increases.
“Fee increases are a form of taxation and, although the General Assembly may have outsourced some of its discretion on the setting of fee levels to the executive branch, it is important to remember that the source of this authority remains with the General Assembly,” their letter read.
Rep. Greg Vitali, minority chair of the House environmental committee and a Democrat from Delaware County, said he finds it puzzling that the Legislature continues to cut DEP funding while at the same time criticizing it for not processing permits quickly enough.
“Ironically, this fee would go toward staffing to help turn permits around,” he said. “They’re not connecting the dots here. And these fees are to just maintain their current staffing; it’s not like they’re doubling their staffing.”
Early opposition from the House does not necessarily derail the regulations but it’s indicative of resistance that will crop up again once the fee package returns for final consideration by IRRC and the legislative environmental committees.
Last year, both of those committees–which are led by Republicans–stood mute as the fee package designed to pay for more drinking water inspectors went through the regulatory process.
But a number of municipalities have come out against the fee increases, since the money has to come from somewhere.
The State Association of Boroughs, for example, has come out against them despite supporting the overarching goals of the Clean Streams Law. Ronald Grutza, the group’s assistant director of government affairs, noted that local governments could bear roughly $2 million of the new fees.
“These costs will be absorbed by the local taxpayers since most members do not have a stormwater utility,” he wrote.