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Nobody benefits when DEP’s budget is cut: Joseph Otis Minott

Posted 6/21/17

As I watched Patrick McDonnell’s confirmation hearing to become secretary of the state Department of Environmental Protection last month, I was struck by the number of senators who were concerned …

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Nobody benefits when DEP’s budget is cut: Joseph Otis Minott

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As I watched Patrick McDonnell’s confirmation hearing to become secretary of the state Department of Environmental Protection last month, I was struck by the number of senators who were concerned about the DEP’s ability to carry out its mission.

Senators raised questions about its capacity to issue timely and complete permits and requested greater transparency in enforcement decisions and more consistent decision-making among the various DEP regional offices.

I believe this is an issue that both industry and citizens can agree needs to be addressed. I believe much of the responsibility for the current state of affairs lies not with the DEP but rather with the governor and Legislature.

Public budgets are moral documents. They reflect the choices we make as citizens about what’s important and what we value.

But in Pennsylvania, you could make a pretty strong argument that our state budgets have long been both immoral and antithetical to our values.

Indeed, as budget hearings have begun in Harrisburg, we are reminded once again that the agency that is supposed to protect Pennsylvania’s environment and public health — the DEP — is seriously and intentionally underfunded, placing our health and our natural resources at risk and frustrating legitimate needs by industries to get timely and complete responses from the department.

First, some DEP budget basics.

Half of the DEP’s budget comes from permit and administration fees. These fees are inadequate to cover the cost of the programs they support, as evidenced by the fact that the DEP is trying to increase them. Another 28 percent of the department’s budget comes from federal funds, which the Trump administration has talked about cutting.

The remaining 22 percent of the DEP’s budget is funded by the state’s general fund — that is, by state tax revenue.

Quite simply, the DEP is not fulfilling its legislatively mandated mission to protect our health and natural resources while accommodating industry’s desire for prompt, thorough responses to their permit applications.

In fact, the DEP cannot fulfill this mission because of well over a decade of relentless — even savage — budget cuts.

The amount of state taxpayer dollars appropriated to the DEP has fallen 40 percent in the last 14 years, from $245.6 million in 2003 to $148.8 million this year.

Gov. Tom Wolf’s proposed general fund budget for the DEP for the upcoming fiscal year — $152 million — is almost $14 million less than it was 23 years ago. There are 25 percent fewer public servants protecting public health and the environment than there were in 2003.

Indeed, the DEP’s total budget is $600,000 below where it was in 2003, and that includes grants given out to others from the Growing Greener and natural gas impact fee programs.

The DEP’s Citizens Advisory Council, an independent body made up of gubernatorial and legislative appointees, pointed out in a Feb. 21 letter to the House and Senate Appropriations Committee chairs that “the consistent cuts to DEP over the last two decades has reached an unsustainable level.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has cited the DEP for “severe” understaffing for the last several years and found that the DEP cannot enforce minimum federal standards for the protection of public health and the environment.

The DEP’s Safe Drinking Water, Air Quality, Surface Coal Mine Regulation, Chesapeake Bay, Drinking Water and Clean Water State Revolving Fund, as well as other programs, have all been warned that they lack sufficient staff resources to enforce minimum federal standards — which are less stringent than those under Pennsylvania law.

As mentioned above, even Pennsylvania’s oil and gas industry has been forced to take notice of the DEP’s understaffing, as the department’s alleged inability to properly review and approve permits in a timely manner has been one of the chief complaints raised by the industry in recent years.

We heard these arguments yet again at Mr. McDonnell’s confirmation hearing in May.

How can the DEP be expected to perform its job consistent with state laws and the constitution when its staff has been reduced far below 2003 levels, before the Marcellus Shale boom even began?

Environmental groups and the oil and gas industry rarely see eye-to-eye, but it is clear that nobody in Pennsylvania benefits when the DEP’s budget is cut to the bone.

The governor and our legislators have a constitutional obligation to protect public health and the environment.

The industry wants to see permits approved more expeditiously.

The only way to achieve both goals is to fully and adequately fund the DEP. Our elected leaders’ failure to meet that moral and legal duty comes at our Commonwealth’s peril.

Joseph Otis Minott is executive director and chief counsel of the Clean Air Council. He can be contacted by email at joe_minott@cleanair.org.