Analysis: Pennsylvania Isn’t Cleaning Up Our Streams, Reclaiming Our Abandoned Mines Quickly Enough To Meet Our Obligations
Pennsylvania has 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.
That same report said since 2007, Pennsylvania has restored just 72 miles of stream to support aquatic life and 49 stream miles to use as potable water supplies, the two cleanest standards. Just 853 acres of lakes were restored to support aquatic life and none to use as potable water supplies.
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. The reductions needed in the next two years are about equal to the amount of reductions Pennsylvania achieved in the first 25 years of the Chesapeake Bay Program.
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.
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.
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 reclamation work in the Commonwealth.
The Response So Far?
How did the General Assembly, governors and DEP respond to these challenges over the last 12 years?--
-- Starting in 2009, over $419 million generated by leasing state forest land for Marcellus Shale drilling was diverted to balance the state’s General Fund budget and not used for conservation purposes;
-- Starting in 2007, $335.7 million in waste fees were diverted from the Environmental Stewardship Fund that were used to fund the on-going Growing Greener Program to cleanup abandoned mines and restore watersheds. The fees are going instead to pay debt service for the one-time Growing Greener II bond issue for the next 25 years;
-- Starting in 2004, $635 million in grants were cut to support wastewater treatment plant operations;
-- Starting in 2003, DEP staff was cut over 12 years by about 548 positions-- 17 percent of its workforce; the programs hit hardest were related to water quality protection and support staff for local watershed groups.
-- In 2002 Pennsylvania had over 11,000 people in its Citizen Water Quality Monitoring Program trained to monitor water quality. In 2009 financial support for the program was all but ended. (Click Here and read page 35); and
-- Between 1997 and 2007 over 2,900 senior volunteers became part of the Pennsylvania Senior Environment Corps whose primary mission was to protect water quality. On its 10th anniversary in 2007, and after being honored by the United Nations Environmental Programme, funding for the program was discontinued. (The non-profit group Nature Abounds is just now in the process of rebuilding this program.)
True, the Act 13 drilling impact fees, the one-time Growing Greener II bond issue and the 2013 funding increases for the Dirt and Gravel Road Program devoted more dollars to abandoned mine reclamation and watershed restoration, but this is no where near the amounts invested prior to 2003 and essentially were trying to make up for funding cut from environmental programs.
It’s interesting to note Republicans and Democrats came together in November of 2013 to pass a $2.3 billion transportation funding package to sure up Pennsylvania saging highway, bridge and transit infrastructure. The package included a significant increase in gasoline taxes phased in over several years in a political atmosphere punctuated by “no new taxes.”
Also interesting is that, while Pennsylvania has 10,000 miles of substandard roads, the Commonwealth has 19,761 miles of substandard streams and rivers, nearly twice the number of roads.
Yet, on funding for repairing and restoring Pennsylvania’s environmental and green infrastructure, there have only been small steps, and even those were to restore funding lost or diverted to balance the state’s General Fund budget.
Just like highways, restoring the state’s green infrastructure will have a tremendous economic benefit.
A peer-reviewed study put out in October by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation found the economic impact of cleaning up just Pennsylvania’s portion of the Chesapeake Bay drainage area (about one-third of the state) would be $6.2 billion annually.
The Challenge Ahead
Today’s water quality issues are even more challenging because of the specific milestones Pennsylvania must meet and the end of federal support for addressing Pennsylvania’s number one water quality issue-- abandoned mine reclamation.
Chesapeake Bay Foundation-PA has already called on Gov.-Elect Wolf to convene a Clean Water Commission within the first 100 days of his administration with the specific charge of developing a plan to restore and protect all the lakes, rivers and streams in Pennsylvania.
Since launching its Clean Water Counts initiative, CBF-PA has seen Berks, Luzerne, Westmoreland, Wyoming, York, Northumberland, Schuylkill, Fayette, Cumberland, Washington, Erie, and Greene counties pass resolutions calling on state officials to make clean water a top priority for the Keystone State in just a few short weeks.
As this initiative builds strength, the upcoming debate Gov.-Elect Wolf is sure to prompt with his proposal for a natural gas production severance tax will offer an opportunity to address funding deficiencies for water quality restoration programs.
Our Best, Underutilized Weapon
One of the biggest untapped resources we have to address water quality issues has been all but forgotten over the last 12 years-- local watershed groups.
In 2002 Pennsylvania had over 425 active watershed restoration groups, but now, due in large part to lack of support, that number has been reduced by about 25 percent.
For every dollar DEP invested in local watershed groups to do watershed restoration work, the groups returned at least $1.25 worth of effort in the form of labor or matching dollars. In other words, the state more than doubled its money.
These groups are just waiting for some inspired leadership and a little more help to accomplish their mission. And if they get it, there is literally no limit to what they can accomplish.
Over the last 12 years we’ve backed away from addressing the most significant water quality issues in Pennsylvania due to lack of money, staff and changes in policy and direction away from environmental work that made a real, tangible difference in our environmental quality.
Now there is an opportunity to get back to doing something real-- cleaning up streams that have been polluted for 125 years, cleaning up the local river so you can take your grandkids fishing and creating economic assets for our communities.
As the saying goes, you can’t catch fish with a windmill!
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