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Manpower shortage impacting pollution investigations

| Tuesday, July 15, 2014, 4:09 p.m.

HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission officers haven't been issuing many citations for Marcellus shale pollution cases.

It's not been for a lack of effort.

The problem has been a lack of manpower, said Corey Brichter, chief of the agency's law enforcement bureau. The commission is short 16 waterways conservation officers, meaning those left are sometimes covering multiple districts. They can't be everywhere, Brichter told commission board members at their quarterly meeting Tuesday.

The law enforcement bureau “believes many more violations are occurring but does not have the resources to effectively patrol active sites,” he said.

Officers, who stock fish and perform boating safety patrols among other responsibilities, are investigating only pollution incidents reported to the commission. Oftentimes, by the time they arrive at the remote sites, evidence has been destroyed or washed downstream, he said.

“There's a lot more we could be doing,” Brichter said.

The commission is recruiting new officers and hopes to begin training cadets next year. But it will take a year for them to be ready for field assignment, the commission said, by which time additional officers may have retired.

What the commission needs is a cadre of officers assigned specifically to work Marcellus shale and pollution cases, said executive director John Arway. He's hoping state lawmakers will provide them.

The commission gets $1 million annually in Marcellus shale impact fees. That has allowed the agency to hire six people who review gas-well permits and the like. The money can be spent only in that specific way.

The commission would like an additional $1 million to hire seven officers — one supervisor and six field staff, spread across the state — for enforcement work, Arway said. The commission asked for that before and didn't get it.

Lawmakers are talking about revisiting the impact fee or replacing it with a Marcellus shale severance tax, said Tim Schaeffer, the commission's deputy director for policy and planning. The hope is the commission might get money for the new officers as part of possible changes that result, he said.

The need for better enforcement is real, said commissioner Bill Sabatose of Elk County, who added he's “disgusted” by what's going on.

“There are a lot of pollution cases, and we're not there. But it's not our fault,” Sabatose said. “We just don't have the people.”

Bob Frye is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at bfrye@tribweb.com or via Twitter @bobfryeoutdoors.

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