Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidates have some explaining to do if they want the support of environmentally minded voters in November. Both Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and his Republican challenger, Scott Wagner, are presumably in receipt of the Pennsylvania Common Conservation Agenda, a 20-page document identifying the state’s most pressing environmental problems and suggesting policy solutions.
Authored by the advocacy group PennFuture in collaboration with 26 conservation organizations, the agenda is part of the “Green in 18” campaign — PennFuture’s effort to bring environmental issues to the fore in the upcoming election.
“It is a very important time for Penn-Future and our partners to raise issues to candidates in a public and supportive manner to see how they respond,” said the group’s CEO, Jacquelyn Bonomo. “We need more investment in clean water, clean-energy jobs and [we need to] restore the funding that has been cut from state agencies dealing with environmental issues.”
“If you are elected governor,” the agenda’s cover letter begins, “we expect that you will stand up for these rights, and we intend to work with you to protect and preserve the health of Pennsylvania’s citizens and the environment that sustains them.”
The letter also reminds the candidates of the 1971 Environmental Rights Amendment to the state constitution, which establishes Pennsylvanians’ right to “clean air, pure water, and the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment.” Public natural resources are common property, the amendment says, and it is the state government’s responsibility to “conserve and maintain them for the benefit of all the people.”
In a legal challenge last year, the amendment was upheld by the state Supreme Court.
Still, Pennsylvania has frequently been singled out by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for its failings — from poor air quality and unsafe drinking water to insufficient progress on Chesapeake Bay cleanup efforts.
“Pennsylvania has the third worst air quality in the United States,” PennFuture states in its executive summary of the agenda, and is “among the states with the highest risks for lead-contaminated water. Nineteen thousand miles of our streams and rivers are unsafe for drinking, recreation, aquatic life, agriculture, or industrial use.”
Many of those problems have been worsened by several years of budget reductions, which have undercut the missions of the state’s Department of Environmental Protection and Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
The conservation agenda addresses that issue, offering sobering statistics on budget cutbacks since the early 2000s. “Between [2003 and 2016] the Department of Environmental Protection saw a 40-percent budget reduction, dropping from a high of $245.6 million to $142.6 million,” the document points out. “As a result, the department retired more than 700 positions.”
Other key items on the agenda include a call for improving state agencies’ ability to protect citizens from the “immense new threats” posed by the Marcellus shale natural gas (fracking) boom; a much stronger effort to prevent drinking water pollution; a push for a 21st century workforce through green jobs; a focus on environmental justice to protect poor communities from bearing the brunt of pollution problems; more investment in the state’s Growing Greener program; and greater investments in clean energy.
National groups with a presence in Pennsylvania, such as the Audubon Society, Nature Conservancy and Sierra Club, have signed on in support of PennFuture’s agenda, as have the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Defense Fund. To help keep these issues in the political conversation, PennFuture is also seeking citizens who are willing to ask agenda-related questions of the candidates in public forums.