News Feature | September 15, 2017

Amid Utility Labor Shortage, Pennsylvania Takes Action

Peter Chawaga - editor

By Peter Chawaga


Those charged with treating our drinking water and wastewater are likely to share the sentiment that they are asked to do too much with too few resources.

In some places, like Pennsylvania, that overburdening has resulted in quality problems and the requisite regulatory crackdown.

“Last December, the Environmental Protection Agency warned Pennsylvania that short staffing risked serious public health inspections,” reported PennLive. “In all, 43 fully trained inspectors and 11 trainees were responsible for ensuring proper maintenance and water quality standards at 8,500 utilities statewide. Those utilities range from small systems that may serve 25 customers in a mobile home community to massive systems with hundreds of thousands of users.”

The EPA decided that this staffing level did not meet minimum safe drinking water standards and threatened to take over enforcement if changes were not made.

In response, the state’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) added two new drinking water inspectors, who will go through two years of training. The DEP found that if funds weren’t appropriated by the state, utilities would face $7.5 million in fees, according to PennLive.

To avoid this reality, the DEP hopes to “eventually return the program to its 2009 staffing levels, when the state had 84 drinking water inspectors,” per PennLive. In the immediate term, the report said that the staff level would be brought up to 62.

Of course, Pennsylvania is not alone in grappling with an abundance of necessary water quality work and a dearth of labor to carry it out.

“There is a workforce crisis in the utility industry caused by impending retirements and shifting demographics, increasing diversity, and a declining number of science and technical students receiving degrees,” reported the Water Research Foundation. “The estimates place the anticipated loss of current utility employees at between 30 to 50 percent within the next 10 years.”

For similar stories visit Water Online’s Labor Solutions Center.

Image credit: "CUPE Nova Scotia,” CUPE Sewer & Water © 2012, used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license: