Characterized by one lawmaker as a way to block environmental regulators from “attacking” churches, a proposed rule change is now before the Pennsylvania House, presenting a possible exemption from state oversight to some well-water-reliant religious organizations.
That’s the case after House Bill 707 — sponsored by Lancaster County Republican David Zimmerman — passed the House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee by a majority vote Wednesday.
The bill, as Zimmerman presents it, is designed to protect religious organizations, as well as related private schools and businesses, from some of the costs related to meeting drinking water standards handed down by the state Department of Environmental Protection.
But opponents have worried that it could come at a greater cost, creating a scenario where well-water contaminants go unchecked, sickening those who consume it.
“Once someone gets ill, we are talking about more than money here,” said Alan Peterson, a Lancaster County physician, who’s long held a focus on environmental health and medicine. “Health is something that can't always be gotten with dollars.”
In Pennsylvania, a water system is considered public when it has at least 15 service connections and serves at least 25 people daily on at least 60 days in a given year.
Many churches’ well-water systems meet that criteria, meaning they are held to higher public-system standards by state regulators — standards that Zimmerman has claimed are too costly for smaller religious organizations to meet.
That's especially true, he said, because they already must follow federal drinking water regulations.
“These facilities already meet the (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) standards and are testing on a regular basis,” Zimmerman said at Wednesday’s hearing, later elaborating. “These folks all want safe drinking water and have wells that have been in existence for decades.”
The goal of the bill is to protect against costs by exempting qualifying systems from testing requirements and well construction standards enforced by the Department of Environmental Protection.
This week, the department’s role in enforcing current standards was criticized by Butler County Republican Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, who serves as the committee’s majority chair.
“This has been done as a backdoor by DEP to attacking churches and to attacking the schools that are associated with those churches in an attempt to shut them down,” he said Wednesday.
It’s a claim that was contested by the committee’s minority chair, Rep. Greg Vitali, a Delaware County Democrat.
“DEP isn’t attacking anything,” he said, pointing out that department officials are simply fulfilling regulatory duties.
Department officials didn’t address the criticism directly, but instead shared a document outlining testimony about the bill given in June 2019 by Lisa Daniels, director of their Bureau of Safe Drinking Water.
“State drinking water programs are committed to fulfilling the promise of ensuring safe drinking water and protecting public health, but there cannot be separate standards that could potentially harm the health and safety of some of our most vulnerable populations,” it reads, opposing the bill.
The bill has since been amended.
‘Do not drink the water’
And opposing lawmakers pointed out that religious organizations often serve large populations of children and elderly people — demographics especially at risk of illnesses carried by contaminated water, according to department officials.
“Religious facilities in rural areas where privately owned water wells are generally located may serve some of our most sensitive and highest risk sub-populations, including children and the elderly,” the shared document reads. “While these facilities provide important services such as child and elder care, those same populations are generally more susceptible to pathogens and chemical contaminants and exhibit a higher incidence of severe illness or death as a result of waterborne outbreaks.”
Peterson agreed, thinking about what he’d tell his grandchildren if he knew they attended a private school with a water system that was allowed to shirk state standards.
“I would tell them, ‘Do not drink the water,’” Peterson said, explaining that many contaminants, like lead, don’t produce symptoms immediately. “A lot of these things can be severe problems down the road, and you don’t even know about it when it’s happening.”
On top of all of that, department officials claim exemptions in the bill could jeopardize millions of dollars in federal funding by moving the state out of compliance with federal standards.
“The loss of these funds would have a negative impact on the public health and welfare of all Pennsylvanians,” the document reads.
Ultimately, the bill was reported out of the committee in a 14-10 vote, with all minority members dissenting. The bill is now before the full House, which is next in session Oct. 19.