News & Politics

Opinion: The Department of Environmental Protection needs to be protected from underfunding and understaffing

The majority chair of the Pennsylvania House Environmental Resource and Energy Committee outlines the crisis in the making at this crucial state agency.

Rock Run in Pennsylvania's Loyalsock State Forest

Rock Run in Pennsylvania's Loyalsock State Forest Robert Nickelsberg

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has been chronically understaffed for years. It is currently unable to fulfill its basic mission to protect public health and the environment, and additional positions proposed in Gov. Josh Shapiro’s budget do not adequately address its needs. When the Pennsylvania General Assembly and governor finalize the Commonwealth budget in the upcoming weeks, they must provide more staffing for DEP.

In 2002, DEP’s authorized complement was 3,211 positions. That was before Pennsylvania’s shale gas boom and the added regulatory responsibilities it placed on DEP. Today, DEP’s staffing is down 661 positions to about 2,550. I have come to believe that the systematic reduction of DEP staffing over time has been part of an intentional effort by conservatives in PA’s General Assembly to prevent full enforcement of Pennsylvania’s environmental laws and regulations. 

DEP understaffing runs throughout the department. I recently sat down with groupings of high-level personnel in five different DEP programs and here’s what I found: 

Oil and Gas Program 

DEP’s oil and gas program has regulatory authority over more than 120,000 active wells in Pennsylvania. It also has responsibility for plugging an estimated 200,000 orphaned or abandoned oil and gas wells. In 2022, DEP indicated that the full complement for Pennsylvania’s Oil and Gas program was 226 positions. Today they are down to about 171 positions – and the program’s workload increases every year. Unsurprisingly, conventional gas wells are routinely illegally abandoned, with drillers not reporting their production data as required by law and drilling brine containing toxic chemicals continues to be illegally spread on public roadways.

Clean Water Program

In early 2024, DEP released a draft report showing about one-third of Pennsylvania’s streams – 28,820 miles – have impaired water quality that make them unsafe for aquatic life, recreation, fish consumption, or drinking water supply. The DEP Clean Water Program staff recently told me they could use 20 more stream biologists to add to the 20 stream biologists they currently have. The program only has staffing to inspect streams once every 30 years – such inspections should be done about every five years. 

Bureau of Air Quality

DEP’s Air program is down about 99 positions since 2008. Program heads told me they have about 28 positions in the pipeline waiting to be filled but don’t have the money to fill them. According to DEP, “Fewer Department staff to conduct inspections, respond to complaints, and pursue enforcement actions will result in less oversight of regulated industry (and) … reduced protection of the environment and public health.” 

Chesapeake Bay Program

About half the land area of Pennsylvania drains into the Chesapeake Bay. Pennsylvania’s poor progress in reducing its agricultural runoff – particularly nitrogen and sediment – has contributed to the bay’s D+ grade by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. A Watershed Implementation Plan prepared by the DEP in 2022 estimated that it needed about 100 more positions. The Chesapeake Bay program asked for 12 additional positions for the upcoming budget, which ultimately were not included in the governor’s budget proposal.  

Hazardous Sites Cleanup Program

DEP’s Hazardous Sites Cleanup program is responsible for remediating contaminated sites where hazardous substances, such as PFAS, have been released. Program heads expect PFAS sites to grow significantly. The program requested five or six more positions in the upcoming budget, but these additional positions were not included in the governor’s budget proposal. They indicate they need $30 million to cover costs this year. 

The governor’s fiscal year 2024-25 budget proposed 71 new DEP positions. Forty of these positions were designed to speed up the permitting process; speeding up permitting turnaround time just allows potential polluters to get about their business faster. Almost none of these proposed positions address the chronic attrition of basic DEP program people. The DEP needs more boots on the ground to engage in inspection activity and more compliance personnel to enforce environmental laws and regulations.

The DEP is not doing its job well now, but the issue is not a lack of money to pay for additional personnel. Currently, the commonwealth is projected to have a $14 billion budget surplus. The issue is whether the governor and the Democrats in the House and Senate have the political will to prioritize environmental protection at the budget negotiation table in the upcoming weeks.

Democratic State Rep. Greg Vitali is the majority chair of the Pennsylvania House Environmental Resource and Energy Committee.