Federal officials are warning the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection that it lacks the necessary staffing and resources to enforce safe drinking water standards, which could be grounds for taking primacy away — costing the state millions of dollars in federal funding.
“Pennsylvania’s drinking water program failed to meet the federal requirement for onsite review of water system operations and maintenance capability, also known as a sanitary survey,” wrote EPA Water Protection Division Director Jon Capacasa in a letter dated December 30. “Not completing sanitary survey inspections in a timely manner can have serious public health implications.”
On Wednesday, problems in Pittsburgh led to the closure of nearly two dozen schools and a boil-water order for 100,000 people. State environmental regulators had discovered low chlorine levels after testing the city’s water as part of an ongoing investigation into its water treatment system. The city has also been having issues with elevated lead levels.
In its December letter to DEP, the EPA says the department’s lack of staff has caused the number of unaddressed Safe Drinking Water Act violations to nearly double in the past five years, from 4,298 to 7,922. This warning from the feds shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, says David Hess, who served as DEP Secretary under former Republican Governor Tom Ridge. He’s now a lobbyist with Crisci Associates in Harrisburg.
“DEP has seen a significant drop in its budget. It’s down over 800 positions, which is 25 percent of its staff,” he says. “The general fund, which pays to keep the lights on and pays for people, has dropped 40 percent in the past 14 years. DEP is getting dangerously close to not being able to accomplish its mission.”