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Analysis: PA Environmental Funding: Eat Your Vegetables, Then You’ll Get Dessert

Every parent has said, “Eat your vegetables, then you can have dessert,” trying to convince a reluctant offspring to get the vitamins and minerals they need and only then something they don’t need, but obviously want, sometimes very badly.

The difference between “wants” and “needs” is critical to the state budget discussion that will happen over the next few months.

The budget proposed this week by Gov. Tom Wolf has some “vegetables,” but most of the new environmental funding proposed is by far “dessert.”

First the vegetables.

The proposed budget for DEP includes 50 new positions at DEP for Oil and Gas Program enforcement, funded by $10 million from the new proposed natural gas severance tax.

It looks like the $76 million in funding for environmental programs coming from the Act 13 drilling impact fee will also be preserved, according to the budget briefing held by Acting Secretary of DEP John Quigley. That’s good news, but not new money.

There was also a $7 million increase in the Oil Well Plugging Program.

Also included are 20 new positions at DCNR earmarked for Point State Park and Washington Crossing State Park.        

$100,000 has been included in the Department of Health to create a registry of health concerns and clinical data of residents located in proximity to geographic areas where natural gas activities are underway.

DCNR’s budget takes a step toward weaning the agency off of the Oil and Gas Fund to cover administration costs-- a $17.1 million increase in General Fund monies to support State Park and Forestry Operations.

A new $500 million revenue bond would be issued through the PA Infrastructure Investment Authority for drinking water and wastewater system improvements.

The Governor’s Budget Office documents show no transfers special environmental funds to the General Fund that were not previously authorized.  In some cases, the agencies will be getting less funding from some special funds, but the spend numbers are about the same for each agency.

Now the desserts.

The budget includes a $325 million Alternative Energy Initiative with these major components--

--  $30 million for Combined Heat and Power (Cogeneration)

-- $20 million for Wind Power

--  $20 million for Green Agriculture

-- $30 million for the Pennsylvania Energy Development Authority

-- $25 million for “Last Mile” Natural Gas Distribution Line Development

-- $50 million for PA Sunshine - Solar Investment

-- $50 million for Energy Efficiency

-- $100 million for Technology Investment (Budget In Brief, page 10)

We need to eat more vegetables.

Left out of the budget proposal at this point are plans for how Pennsylvania intends to cleanup the 19,761 miles of streams polluted by abandoned mine drainage, agricultural and stormwater runoff and over 37,761 acres of lakes that do not meet water quality standards, according to DEP’s latest water quality assessment report.

As DEP’s Citizens Advisory Council noted, Pennsylvania also has a specific obligation, as a result of the federal Clean Water Act and court decisions, to clean up rivers and streams flowing into the Chesapeake Bay from the Susquehanna and Potomac river basins, about one-third of the state.

A U.S. Environmental Protection Agency report last year found Pennsylvania missed its 2013 nitrogen reduction goal by 2 million pounds and sediment reduction milestone by nearly 116 million pounds.

DEP said by 2017, Pennsylvania must make an additional 10 million pound reduction in nitrogen and a nearly 212 million pound reduction in sediment to meet our mandated milestones.

Simple math tells us we won’t make the milestones with the level of effort we now have.

Pennsylvania has just 662 days to put in place the cost-effective best management practices we know work to meet these 2017 reduction requirements-- two growing seasons-- since the biggest sources of pollution for Pennsylvania’s rivers and streams are agricultural runoff, stormwater and abandoned mines.

There are no silver bullets in this business and 30 years of experience has taught us what works and what doesn’t.  For example, agricultural waste digesters typically just move pollutants around and don’t address the significant problem of sediment pollution.

Wastewater plants are already doing their part to meet the pollution milestones so far, which is a fraction of what Pennsylvania has to do as a whole.  Agricultural runoff and stormwater need major attention.

If we do not meet these milestones, the Chesapeake Bay Program requires the federal government to implement “backstop” control measures of their choosing that will dramatically affect local communities and businesses.

If, for example, the $20 million allocated to “Green Agriculture” in the energy initiative were instead devoted to installing stream buffers, one of the most cost-effective pollution reduction tools we have, we could install up to 9,300 acres of buffers putting Pennsylvania a long way toward meeting our stream buffer milestone. It would also help Pennsylvania’s family farms and create jobs at the same time.

In his budget briefing, Acting DEP Secretary Quigley said he is working with the departments of Agriculture and Conservation and Natural Resources to develop a plan to meet the 2017 Chesapeake Bay requirements.

Pennsylvania also has a legacy of almost 220,000 acres of abandoned mines that pollute more than 5,000 miles of streams in 45 counties across the state.

Between 1995 and 2002, Pennsylvania reclaimed over 33,300 acres of abandoned mine lands, about 4,125 acres a year.  In 2013, DEP’s Bureau of Abandoned Mine Reclamation completed 647.3 acres of reclamation projects.

As DEP’s Citizens Advisory Council also pointed out recently, in just seven years federal Abandoned Mine Reclamation Fund monies coming to Pennsylvania to support mine reclamation work will end. 

In 2013 Pennsylvania received $58.5 million in federal AML Fund money, which makes up the bulk of the funding for reclaiming abandoned mines in the Commonwealth.

Acting DEP Secretary Quigley said in his budget briefing Pennsylvania did “have a seat at the table” in reauthorization talks.

Budgets are about priorities.  In the scarce funding environment we find ourselves in, we have to separate our wants from our needs, our “have to do” from our “it would be nice.”

It would be nice to be able to address both our wants and needs, but with the reaction Gov. Wolf has already received from the Senate and House on the budget, we need to address the clean water mandates we must do before we have any dessert.

We need to eat more vegetables.


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