Legislation proposed in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives would exempt the water systems of some private schools, churches and businesses from state oversight, even though they are defined as public water systems.
“These institutions want good clean water, but they want to do it on their own and they want to take the liability onto themselves,” said Rep. David Zimmerman, of East Earl, the bill's primary sponsor.
Zimmerman said some small institutions are finding the regulations to be too cumbersome and expensive.
Pennsylvania state code defines a public water system as one that provides water for human consumption — drinking, bathing, cooking, showering, dishwashing or maintaining oral hygiene — and has at least 15 service connections or serves at least 25 people daily at least 60 days out of a year.
The bill would apply to facilities that are associated with or owned by a religious group and rely on a privately owned well for drinking water.
Those facilities would be exempt from having to follow the water testing requirements and well construction standards that are required by state and federal law and enforced by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.
The DEP’s regulatory standards are too cumbersome and the costs of regularly testing water has gotten too expensive for many small private schools and churches, Zimmerman said.
Zimmerman said he has heard complaints from churches and private schools that “do not want the intrusion of the government.”
At a recent House committee hearing in Harrisburg, a board member of a small Lancaster County private school provided an example.
Daryl Sensenig, of Quarryville, said his small religious school went through the process of becoming compliant with DEP standards. But it cost the school — which has 18 “patrons,” 42 students and four full-time employees — nearly $30,000 since 2009, Sensenig said.
“This has created a substantial financial burden on our school,” Sensenig told the House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee.
But Lisa Daniels, director of the Bureau of Safe Drinking Water at the state Department of Environmental Resources, said at the hearing that the bill would not achieve its intended goal. Instead, it would make compliance more complicated and expensive for those who are already regulated, she said.
Amending the state definition of public water systems would not change the federal definition, Daniels said. And a religious exemption does not exist under the federal regulations.
“As a result, the bill would not be effective in exempting these facilities from all environmental compliance obligations, instead it would only serve to move oversight from the state level to the federal level, requiring them to work with EPA instead of DEP.”
In Pennsylvania, wells that fall outside of the definition of a public water system are not regulated or monitored, Andy Yencha, a Penn State Extension educator, said in an interview.
Zimmerman said the bill does not require the exempt institutions to regularly test their water. But they would take full liability and responsibility if anyone were to become sick from consuming their water.
Alan Peterson, a physician who practices primarily in the southern part of the Lancaster county, said he believes in preventative measures.
“It’s better to prevent these things, rather than to ‘pick up the pieces’,” he said.
Peterson, a member of the Lancaster Lead Coalition, said some water-borne ailments — such as lead poisoning — do not always present visible symptoms.
Zimmerman said he believes the bill has great potential for moving forward in the Legislature. Last session, however, it died in the Environmental Resources and Energy Committee — where it sits now.
“I will continue to keep pushing this bill on behalf of my constituents,” Zimmerman said in an email.
Representatives Brett Miller and David Hickernell, who represent portions of Lancaster County, are among the bill’s co-sponsors. Neither could be reached for comment.