DEP head talks water contamination, fracking, and funding during sit down with newspaper

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Patrick McDonnell, secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, visited The Bucks County Courier Times last month for an interview on a wide range of issues.

Kyle Bagenstose @KyleBagenstose

From the plugging of abandoned oil and gas wells in Pennsylvania’s mining regions, to responding to drinking water contamination in the Philadelphia suburbs, to overseeing new natural gas pipelines throughout the state, the Department of Environmental Protection has a lot of priorities to cover but not always enough resources, secretary Patrick McDonnell said recently.

McDonnell laid out the issues during a one-hour interview late last month with this news organization’s editorial board. Joining him was Patrick Patterson, regional director for the DEP’s southeast office.

“We’ve had 10 years of budget cuts in the department,” McConnell said. “A lot of what ends up getting cut, particularly early on, is training, (computers and equipment), and the resources to do a lot of the work.”

McConnell said the dynamic led the department to evaluate its processes in recent years, in order to identify areas where new software or equipment could free up resources.

In some areas, however, technology solutions aren’t enough to solve funding problems. McDonnell said earlier this month the department approved an increase in drinking water fees to pay for new staff in its drinking water safety program. The federal government delegates responsibility to Pennsylvania to inspect the state’s public drinking water systems, but the Environmental Protection Agency threatened to revoke that authority after it determined the DEP was not performing the work adequately.

“We started bringing on staff over the last year, and have raised fees to a point where we can bring on 33 additional staff, primarily sanitarians,” McDonnell said.

Also in desperate need of funding are the DEP’s oil and gas programs. McDonnell said the program is losing about half a million dollars a month between the fees it receives to regulate the sector and the expenses it incurs doing so. The department has issued a report and plans to soon propose a fee increase to support the program.

Other programs don’t have an answer yet. The state’s Hazardous Sites Cleanup Fund, responsible for addressing dangerously contaminated sites, was traditionally funded at about $50 million annually through business taxes that have since been phased out. Now, the program receives about $20 million from the state’s “Act 13” money, which comes from impact fees on natural gas extraction.

“But that’s (only) funding half the program,” McDonnell said. “One of the conversations we’ll be having here over the next year or two is how we fund that going forward, and what those programs look like.”

Resources are also needed to plug as many as half a million abandoned oil and gas wells, some of them existing from the 19th century. Also in “very early stages” are updates to the state’s recycling programs, which McDonnell said haven’t been changed significantly since the 1980s.

McDonnell said next year’s budget proposals currently have the agency getting a small increase in funding, which would begin to reverse a decades-long cutting trend. He said lawmakers in Harrisburg seemed to support the proposal during early budget hearings, but that nothing is certain.

“There were legislators acknowledging we needed more resources to do the work that we do,” McDonnell said. “Whether that translates into final votes? That’s a question I wouldn’t be able to answer.”

Asked about the most significant issues in the southeast region, McDonnell and Patterson turned first to ongoing perfluorinted chemical water contamination in Bucks and Montgomery counties. The subject of extensive investigation by this news organization, the chemicals, also known as PFAS, were used in firefighting foams at area military bases and forced the closure of hundreds of drinking water wells for residents of Warminster, Warrington and Horsham.

While the federal government has primary authority over the site, the DEP is considering a petition to create its own drinking water standard for one of the chemicals, PFOA. If it does make one, it would be a first.

“We as a state have never established a limit. It’s always been taking the federal limits,” McDonnell said.

If the state were to make a limit lower than the one recommended by the EPA, it could affect the actions the military would have to take in addressing regional drinking water contamination.

Also at issue is the cleanup of the chemicals from the environment and groundwater, which the military has not yet undertaken. Because the chemicals are widely unregulated, there is some question as to what extent the military will need to clean them from the environment. Patterson said the state may try and base its cleanup requirements off the 70 part per trillion drinking water safety limit recommended by the EPA.

“I think our folks regionally are starting with the health advisory limit and then waiting to see what the regulated community (the military) pushes back with,” Patterson said.

Another major issue regionally is the Delaware River Basin Commission’s consideration of a ban on hydraulic fracturing — or fracking — for natural gas in the basin. The commission has proposed to ban the process throughout the entire basin, but allow for water to be withdrawn for fracking operations elsewhere, and for the release of treated wastewater from hydraulic fracturing operations into the basin’s waterways.

Asked how the specifics of the proposal came to be— banning fracking but allowing for the other activities — McDonnell did not offer specifics.

“The (regulation) was drafted, one, in collaboration with all of the parties, and then two, within the bounds of what the legal authorities of the DRBC are,” McDonnell said.

Asked about any concerns with federal cutbacks in environmental regulation under the Trump administration, McDonnell said he had “more than concerns.”

“We’ve been involved actively in some of the litigation around things like ozone standards (and) vehicle standards,” McDonnell said.

An major ongoing concern are potential cuts to EPA funding, which in turn could trickle down to states that receive money from the agency to run delegated programs, such as those for air pollution and clean drinking water.

“We rely on those dollars to help support our ability to run those delegated programs,” McDonnell said, adding the DEP also relies on EPA funding for farming and mining initiatives.


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