The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is under fire from the Environmental Protection Agency. In December, the EPA sent a letter admonishing the state for inadequate enforcement of safe drinking water standards — citing a decrease in inspections and a big increase in the number of unaddressed violations over the past five years. The state now has 60 days to address the issue. So we reached out to David Hess, who served as DEP secretary under Governor Tom Ridge, to get his take on the problem — and potential solutions.

The Allegheny Front: So because of these warnings from the EPA, Pennsylvania is now at risk of losing something called “primacy” with regard to these standards. What exactly is primacy, and why is it a big deal?

David Hess: Well, primacy means Pennsylvania has the authority to enforce federal safe drinking water requirements as well as state requirements. And along with primacy comes funding to help pay staff here in Pennsylvania and to pay other expenses. But the biggest thing is about $100 million every year comes from the federal government in the form of grants and loans to water systems around the state to improve their systems, to put in new drinking water treatment plants, and upgrade monitoring at drinking water treatment plants. So the impact could be absolutely huge if we lose primacy.

AF: And what would happen then? Would the federal government step in?

DH: If it came to that, the federal government would enforce its requirements; the state would enforce its own requirements. People who run water companies would be subject to double permitting because Pennsylvania has a state law that requires these systems to be regulated. It would represent a paperwork and regulatory nightmare for people who are regulated by that program.

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AF: And what are the implications of DEP not being able to properly monitor drinking water?

DH: Well, safe drinking water is only one program. The surface mining program, air quality programs and clean water programs have all gotten similar letters over the past couple of years. And not just one. This isn’t even the first one for the safe drinking water program. Pennsylvania has been on notice from the federal government because we’re not meeting minimum federal requirements. We just don’t have the staff. You know, the General Assembly and the governors over the past decade or so have cut DEP’s general fund monies by 40 percent. They’ve cut staff by almost 25 percent; they’re down almost 800 positions from where they were in 2003, when I left. These cuts have an impact. I mean, this isn’t hard to figure out. If you don’t have the staff and you have ‘X’ number of facilities you have to inspect, simple math will tell you, you just can’t do everything.

AF: Governor Wolf recently announced his new budget. Is there any relief in there?

DH: Well, there’s not a dime to get new staff. There’s not a dime to pay other regulatory programs. Where he does increase some money depends on floating a bond issue, which the General Assembly is very cool too. And the nationally recognized Growing Greener program that funds mine reclamation and watershed restoration projects is in serious jeopardy. They’re taking money out of the fund to ultimately fund the state’s cleanup of hazardous waste sites. It is a convoluted budget. This is the same sort of gimmick and mechanism that we’ve seen over the past 10 years from the General Assembly and governors, and it hasn’t solved the problem.

AF: So what’s the solution?

DH: I think there are a couple solutions. First, legislators and the governor have to understand a simple fact: If you cut somebody 25 percent, it’s going to have an impact. And if DEP was a private business, they could stop making a product or close a facility. DEP doesn’t have the option of not enforcing environmental laws. Once you recognize that fact, you get down to the nitty gritty. Part of that is adopting fees on the regulated industries. It’s retooling the permit process so that it’s more efficient, and DEP has been taking steps recently to do that, including electronic permitting. And I think the other thing we need to do is look at regulations again — to make sure we have effective and efficient regulations without overburdening the people that the department is regulating. Not sacrificing environmental protection; but eliminating as much paperwork as we possibly can.

AF: And so where would money for new staffing come from?

DH: They seem to spend money on things like giving $60 million to moviemakers to make movies in Pennsylvania. Maybe that should go somewhere else. I mean, if you look at the state budget priorities, I have to scratch my head sometimes. They are not core functions of state government. Protecting the environment is — especially in Pennsylvania where you have a constitutional amendment that says people have a right to clean air and water.

AF: So given all this, should people be worried about their drinking water in Pennsylvania?

DH: I think they should generally not be worried. Larger water systems, in particular, generally have better resources. Obviously, Pittsburgh has been having difficulties with lead — and more recently, chlorine levels. But they at least have the resources to deal with some of these issues. What happens with lead is that with such limited staff, DEP has had to pull people off of other things they were doing and put that time and effort into dealing with the lead problem across the state. They did special sampling across the state, for example, in a number of water systems to supplement the testing that’s already done. Every time they throw those resources to the latest problem, something doesn’t get done. It’s like the old game Whac-A-Mole: Whoever sticks their head up, you need to pay attention to it.

AF: But we’ve seen the number of violations go up, and more of them are going unaddressed. So why shouldn’t we be worried?

DH: Well, [it’s like] triage. The most serious violations, you take care of immediately. On the other end of the scale, you may have something that was submitted in a report that wasn’t quite right, so [that’s] sort of a paperwork kind of violation. There wasn’t any indication in the letter indicating what kind of things there were, but knowing how these programs operate, it’s obviously the serious violations that get the attention first. All violations are not the same.

AF: Well, at the moment, all signs point to some big budget and staffing cuts looming at the Environmental Protection Agency itself under the Trump administration. How does that impact all this?

DH: I think it’s too early to tell. Until some concrete actions happen, you don’t know what the impact is going to be. I think one of the worst things that could happen is for the new administration to unilaterally cut funding to states to support programs. I mean, imagine what that would do in Pennsylvania, where we’re already tremendously behind. It would be devastating.

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David Hess led the Pennsylvania DEP under Governor Tom Ridge. He now works with the government affairs group Crisci Associates in Harrisburg.