Friday, May 19, 2017

PennLive Editorial: Pennsylvanians Can’t Wait For Clean Water, State Must Act Now

On Friday, PennLive posted this editorial entitled, “Pennsylvanians Can’t Wait For Clean Water, State Must Act Now,” about significant funding gaps in DEP’s Safe Drinking Water Program and the ramifications on clean water and public health.  The text of the editorial follows—
When you turn on the kitchen faucet at home, you count on a couple of things:
First, that the water will flow freely. And second, that it's going to be clean and safe for you and your family to drink.
But for residents of the tiny borough of Zelienople in Butler County, that basic social compact didn't apply for years.
In 1998, after a drought shut off its primary water source, the borough began drawing water from the polluted Connoquenessing Creek (photo), which ranks only second to the Mississippi River in toxic chemical dumping.
As PennLive's Wallace McKelvey laid out this week in chilling detail, high nitrate levels in the creek led to advisories against pregnant women and children drinking from their taps.
The nitrates, which were later traced to a nearby steel plant, can impact human metabolism and starve the brain of oxygen. Young children and fetuses are the most vulnerable to nitrate poisoning, McKelvey reported.
That went on for two years, with the state unaware of the problem. Finally, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency stepped in, ordering a steel plant to pay for an alternate water source.
In 2002, the EPA's Office of Inspector General issued a report on failed oversight at the federal and state level that contributed to the crisis, McKelvey reported.
Now, the state is scrambling to increase the number of inspectors statewide and enact new regulations to prevent the Zelienople incident--or more recent lead contaminations in Pittsburgh and Flint, Mich.--from happening again.
As McKelvey points out, unless Gov. Tom Wolf and the Republican-controlled General Assembly step in, DEP's proposed solution won't result in fully trained inspectors on the ground until 2021.
And that's the best-case scenario -- because even the slightest push back under the Capitol dome could result in a delay of months or years.
Right now, the DEP is seeking regulatory approval to impose a $7.5 million fee package to be paid for by water utilities across the state that would bolster the ranks of water inspectors and beef up safety.
This process will take entirely too long. State government can solve that problem by simply boosting DEP's budget for safe drinking water inspections. That would put inspectors on the ground well before 2021.
Yes, it's possible that utilities could turn around and pass some of this negligible cost to their customers. Or taxpayers could be asked to pay more because of the increased budget appropriation.
But consumers, the industry, and lawmakers need to ask themselves this:
What is the more pressing need? A few pennies on your water bill? Or an unsafe drinking supply that puts public health at risk?
And there's no guarantee that more inspectors would prevent another Zelienople--that's what other proposed rule changes are designed to do.
But without them, we won't know what could be going wrong. And there's no excuse for allowing Pennsylvanians to drink contaminated water.
Because the Pennsylvania Constitution is absolutely unambiguous about state government's responsibility in this instance.
Article 1, Section 27 of the foundational document reads:
"The people have a right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic, and esthetic values of the environment. Pennsylvania's public natural resources are the common property of all of the people, including generations yet to come. As trustee of these resources, the Commonwealth shall conserve and maintain them for the benefit of all the people."
And lest you think that's just flowery verbiage, a 2013 state Supreme Court ruling gave the amendment some real teeth:
"The right delineated in the first clause of Section 27 presumptively is on par with, and enforceable to the same extent as, any other right reserved to the people in Article 1," the court held.
Those other rights, by the way, include the right to life, liberty, property and the pursuit of happiness; it includes freedom of speech, freedom of religion, the right to trial by jury and the right to bear arms.
Looming above all this is the threat by the EPA to take over drinking water enforcement if the state fails to act.
In budget after budget, lawmakers have found a way to slip in sweeteners and funding for favored causes back home, including the creation of taxing zones enabling the construction of baseball and hockey stadiums.
If lawmakers and the administration can find the money for porkbarrel projects, they can find the money for guaranteeing the constitutional right to clean water.
Anything else is an absolute abdication of their collective responsibility.
Related Stories:
Proposed Trump Cuts To State Grants Will Cripple DEP, Cause Drastic Fee Increases

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