New Yorkers are understandably concerned about a host of environmental issues that affect the quality and safety of their day to day lives, especially their health. These issues range from air and water quality to catastrophic weather events to waste management.
The state agency that is most directly responsible for safeguarding our environmental health is the Department of Environmental Conservation. Last week, the State Comptroller’s Office released a new report questioning whether the DEC has become so starved for resources that it can no longer fully do its job.
As the Comptroller notes, “DEC programs are integral to the functioning of society in New York State.” But in the last 10 years, the agency has lost 10 percent of its employees—more than 300 full-time staff. Agency spending is essentially flat and is projected to decline over the next several years, says the Comptroller.
And the DEC’s responsibilities are only mounting, especially as climate change becomes a more visible threat to environmental health and safety.
Why Does the DEC Matter?
The DEC is the public’s watchdog. They are our front line of defense against environmental pollution and degradation at all levels, whether it’s making sure that power plants are not releasing dangerous amounts of pollutants, or that your neighborhood gas station’s oil tanks are not leaking into the ground.
DEC enforcement activity, the Comptroller says, recently uncovered long term violations of the federal Clean Air Act by an industrial plant in Tonawanda, New York. Residents in Tonawanda, located in the Buffalo metro-area, were being exposed to unsafe levels of benzene, a human carcinogen, and other toxic substances.
The breadth and depth of the DEC’s core responsibilities are staggering. The Comptroller describes some of the agency’s core tasks:
- Permitting and overseeing facilities that manage hazardous wastes, municipal wastes and sewage.
- Regulating discharges of pollution to State water bodies.
- Issuing air pollution permits, or registrations, for power plants, factories and other facilities such as dry cleaners that have the potential to emit air pollutants.
- Managing State wildlife populations and issuing licenses to hunt, trap and fish.
- Overseeing mining and oil and gas extraction in New York State.
- Administering State-owned lands, boat launches and campsites in the Adirondack and Catskill Parks, and administering State reforestation lands, wildlife management lands and fishing access sites in the rest of the State.
- Conducting cleanups of contaminated sites under the State Superfund Program and monitoring cleanups undertaken through the State Environmental Restoration and Brownfield Cleanup Program.
- Assessing risks to the State’s environment related to climate change and developing plans to mitigate these risks.
Some of the agency’s most essential functions are now performed by considerably fewer personnel.
The DEC program areas -besides Administration and Operations- that have experienced the biggest staff cuts in the last ten years are Environmental Enforcement (-18.6 percent), Air and Water Quality Management (-16.8 percent) and Solid and Hazardous Waste Management (-9.0 percent).
Impact of Less Staff on Air and Water Quality Oversight
One question raised by the Comptroller’s Office is whether the DEC is able to adequately implement and enforce the federal Clean Air and Clean Water acts, a “critical” function.
The Comptroller reports that in 2014, “the DEC conducted FCEs [Clean Air Act full-compliance evaluations] at 12.4 percent of subject facilities, compared to a national average for state inspections of 34.5 percent of subject facilities.”
The number of Clean Air Act compliance evaluations dropped between 2010 and 2014, as did the number of stack tests reported by the DEC.
And as the number of inspections declined, so did reports of violations, says the Comptroller’s Office.
DEC reports of facilities with alleged violations of the Clean Air Act dropped sharply between 2010 and 2014. In contrast, the number of violations reported by the federal EPA for facilities in New York State actually increased during the same period.
Similarly, the number of facilities subject to DEC’s formal or informal enforcement actions of the Clean Water Act also fell significantly (a drop of over 50 percent) between 2010 and 2014. It is important to note, in fairness to the DEC, that Clean Water Act inspections dropped sharply and then soared during this four-year period.
“While there are many potential explanations for these changes,” says the Comptroller, “staffing reductions may be a factor underlying declines in certain types of inspections and findings of environmental violations.”
Thinking About the Future
At the same time as budgets have been slashed, more critical functions are being put on the agency’s plate. Recent initiatives by the state Legislature, Governor Cuomo’s office and federal agencies will all require DEC action, says the Comptroller.
This includes development of a climate action plan, regulation of shale gas production, addressing threats associated with crude oil transportation, implementation of new federal clean air standards and management of other pollution-control programs.
And the DEC’s funding is projected to decline over the next several years.
Between 2003 and 2013, state sources of funding for the DEC were relatively flat or declined, says the Comptroller. Federal support for the agency increased significantly, however, mainly due to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Those funds are now largely exhausted.
All spending -federal and state- allocated to the DEC is expected to decline 25.9 percent over the next four years, according to the Comptroller. The Department of Budget projects that the DEC’s 2013-14 actual total funding of $1.016 billion will drop to $753.6 million by state fiscal year 2017-18.
Where does that leave us, and who calls the state’s financial shots? At the end of the day, Governor Cuomo will be the one to decide whether the DEC’s funding levels show any improvement.
The Cuomo administration has repeatedly challenged the assertion -made by environmental groups and a number of legislators- that the DEC does not have the resources necessary to adequately protect the environment and public health.
“This administration has devoted more than $16 billion for infrastructure, resiliency, clean energy and environment programs while also investing in new technologies and streamlined management systems to make this agency more efficient,” DEC spokesman Tom Mailey told the Albany Times Union.
“This is the boldest commitment of resources and attention to the state’s environment in recent history,” Mailey said last week.
Environmental Fund Used to Plug State Budget Holes
The DEC also supports “critically important” environmental programs with funds specifically dedicated by the state legislature. One of these, the Environmental Protection Fund, is a “pay-as-you-go” source of capital funding for projects like open space and farmland conservation, controlling invasive species and upgrading municipal sewage treatment plants.
The EPF is replenished by proceeds from the Real Estate Transfer Tax, along with other state revenue streams, like the Bottle Bill.
Since the establishment of the Fund in 1993, $2.1 billion has been disbursed toward environmental projects across New York State. But another $928 million has been “swept” from the EPF to the state’s General Fund for budget relief.
Roughly half of the EPF dollars swept to the General Fund have been replaced with bonded funds, which creates more debt for state taxpayers, says the Comptroller’s Office. Over $500 million were not replaced at all.
At a time when there is enormous political pressure to diminish the public sector, the Comptroller’s Office is asking state residents and legislators to consider, at least in terms of protecting our environment, whether we may have gone too far.