Wednesday, May 17, 2017

EQB OKs Proposed Fees To Improve Safe Drinking Water Oversight For Public Comment

The Environmental Quality Board Wednesday unanimously voted to send a proposed $7.5 million Safe Drinking Water fee increase regulation out for public comment.
The fee package is designed to make up for staff and other resource deficiencies in meeting minimum federal program requirements in DEP’s Safe Drinking Water Program identified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The earliest the fees could be finalized is April 2018 under the state’s regulatory review process and DEP could start hiring staff based on those fees in January 2019.
DEP proposes to increase the number of inspectors by 50 percent who ensure safe drinking water is delivered from the state’s more than 8,500 public water systems and more than 10 million Pennsylvania residents.
When finalized, the fees would provide the funds to add 33 new positions to the existing drinking water complement. This is the first increase to permitting fees since the fees were first implemented in 1984.
“Years of under-investment in our safe drinking water oversight has put Pennsylvania in a precarious position,” said DEP Acting Secretary Patrick McDonnell. “DEP staff have done tremendous work to ensure that the water that we drink is safe and clean. But, we cannot continue with the staffing shortages we currently face.”
Over the past few months, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has noted that DEP has one inspector for every 149 public water systems, more than double the national average of one inspector for every 67 systems.
EPA has also warned that if inspection requirements are not met, Pennsylvania may lose primacy over Safe Drinking Water programs. Correspondence can be found on the DEP website.  
At risk is not only federal funding to pay the cost of administering this federal program, but up to $100 million in annual federal funding for grants and loans to improve water systems throughout Pennsylvania.
EPA’s review said Pennsylvania failed to conduct the minimum number of sanitary surveys of water systems-- once every 3 years for community water supplies and once every 5 years for non-community systems-- schools, camps, bulk water suppliers.
Because of the lack of staff, DEP completed only 1,847 sanitary surveys in FY 2015-16 compared to 3,177 in FY 2009-10.
EPA also pointed out, the lack of staff meant the number of unaddressed Safe Drinking Water Act violations doubled over the last 5 years from 4,298 to 7,922.
The proposed package would increase fees for new or amended permits and impose annual fees for community water systems, non-community water systems, and bottled, vended, retail and bulk water suppliers.
“It’s clear that the ever-expanding workload of inspections cannot be managed forever by the current staff levels,” said McDonnell. “These inspections cover the entirety of the water system, from the water source, through the treatment and storage, and finally the distribution to homes. We’re seeking these increases to make sure that we can continue DEP’s high-quality work and fulfill our responsibility to ensure clean drinking water sources to the people of Pennsylvania.”
At the meeting, Jonathan Lutz, alternate for Rep. John Maher (R-Allegheny), Majority Chair of the House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee, said he has a concern about the fees equaling the level of service provided by DEP to the water systems.
Lutz asked if DEP would be open to other approaches to raising the needed $7.5 million, like assessments on the systems regulated similar to the way the Public Utility Commission is funded for its oversight of utilities.
The earliest the regulation could be published for public comment is in July.  After the EQB, the regulation will be reviewed by the Governor’s Budget Office, Office of Attorney General, the environmental committees of the General Assembly and the Independent Regulatory Review Commission.  
The earliest it could come back to the EQB for final action is in December and could be effective in April, about a year from now, if everything goes right.
DEP would need to be collecting fees for at least six months after the fees become effective before it would begin hiring new staff.  That means DEP could begin hiring staff  in January 2019.  DEP said it takes 3 years to fully train a new inspector.
EPA recommended in April DEP identify a temporary funding source to get new staff on sooner.
DEP Acting Secretary Patrick McDonnell told the Board even if this was not a federal program, DEP would be asking for more resources because the compliance level in drinking water systems has been dropping.
A public comment period will be announced once a draft of the package is finalized; details of the comment period will be announced at that time.
Other Action
The EQB voted to accept a rulemaking petition for study by the Delaware Riverkeeper to reclassify portions of the Delaware River.
Lutz expressed a concern about Pennsylvania setting a standard for the Delaware River when other states in the watershed would not be bound by that standard.
Adam Pankake, alternate for Sen. Gene Yaw (R-Lycoming), Majority Chair of the Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee, questioned how much the study of the petition will cost Pennsylvania when the Delaware is an interstate river.
Copies of the proposed drinking water fee and background documents and other items from the EQB meeting are available on the Environmental Quality Board webpage.
Related Stories:
EPA: DEP Lacks Resources To Enforce Minimum Federal Safe Drinking Water Regs

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