Mar 25 2014
News Analysis: Finalizing the NYS Budget, & Cautionary Tales From WV and NC
Photo credit: jagermesh  via Creative Commons
March 25, 2014
News Analysis: Finalizing the NYS Budget, & Cautionary Tales From WV and NC

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State lawmakers could agree on final figures for critical environmental programs as early as tonight, say advocates who are following the 2014 budget process.

Environmental groups throughout New York are urging lawmakers to restore the state’s Environmental Protection Fund back to its pre-recession level of $200 million.

The Fund helps to support a wide array of capital projects, like wastewater treatment plant upgrades, that protect the environment. Governor Cuomo initially proposed a $4 million increase for the Fund, bringing it up to $157 million.

According to the New York League of Conservation Voters, the state Assembly and Senate have also released proposals that would divert clean-energy investment dollars- generated by a surcharge on utility bills- to the state’s general operating fund.

“These dollars are supposed to fight climate change and create clean-energy jobs. But once they are in the general fund, these dollars can be used for anything Albany wants,” stated NYLCV in a release.

The fate of those clean energy dollars could also be resolved this week.

Despite calls by some legislators and organizations like the New York Public Interest Research Group and Environmental Advocates, it is highly unlikely that staffing levels at the Department of Environmental Conservation, the state’s lead environmental agency, will be increased this year.

The DEC has lost 800 staff members in the last six years. The Governor’s proposed budget called for one new staff member.

A Difficult Balance

Almost as soon as budget negotiations got started in Albany this year, the country witnessed a series of environmental accidents, all related to energy generation and fuel transport.

The accidents, particularly ones in North Carolina and West Virginia, raise questions about the balancing act attempted by state governments, as they strive to both encourage economic development and protect natural resources and public health.

These are pressing issues for New York State. The state DEC has lost some of its funding for enforcement personnel, and has initiated a program in which polluters can see penalties dropped in exchange for coming forward voluntarily.

The state is still considering whether it will permit high-volume hydraulic fracturing, a practice that has sparked concerns about potential impacts on drinking water supplies, and methane leaks.

Fracking’s proponents argue that high-volume gas drilling will bring jobs and tax revenue to the state.

New York is also in the midst of a significant expansion of its natural gas delivery infrastructure. New pipelines, compressor stations, and other facilities are to be built that will help to move gas from Pennsylvania and other states, through New York, to urban markets on the eastern seaboard.

The recent experiences of other states may be instructive as lawmakers in Albany finalize the state budget this week for environmental protection and sustainability programs.

The Weakening of State Regulatory Agencies

While New York is known historically as a state with an aggressive and groundbreaking regulatory framework, advocates maintain that budget cuts have led to gaps in environmental enforcement.

New York State DEC Commissioner Joseph Martens spoke at this year’s budget hearings about the agency’s role in helping make New York “open for business”.

In both North Carolina and West Virginia, local residents have charged that state environmental agencies were weakened by a focus on making environmental regulations “business friendly”.

In West Virginia, an estimated 10,000 gallons of a chemical fluid used to wash coal leaked from a storage facility into the Elk River in January. The spill occurred upstream from a water treatment plant serving 300,000 people in the Charleston area.

A veteran reporter at the Charleston Gazette, Ken Ward, noted in an interview with National Public Radio that the federal Chemical Safety Board had previously traveled to West Virginia after a series of chemical accidents.

The Board encouraged the state of West Virginia to work with the local health department to “create a new chemical accident prevention program through which government inspectors would more frequently go into these plants, would ensure they’re being operated safely.”

Ward said that industry officials reacted negatively to the proposal, and the state did not heed the Board’s recommendation.

“The notion that these places are just terribly overregulated is wildly exaggerated,” said Ward.

In North Carolina, Duke Energy spilled 39,000 tons of coal ash into the Dan River in early February. According to the New York Times, the spill “coated the river bottom 70 miles downstream and threatened drinking water and aquatic life”.

Coal ash is a waste product generated by coal-powered electricity plants. The ash in North Carolina was located in storage ponds that were reportedly un-lined.

According to the Times, state employees involved in regulating water pollution were told “they must focus on customer service, meaning issuing environmental permits for businesses as quickly as possible.”

2014 so far: fuel transport and the risk posed to drinking water and natural habitats

In the last few days, at least three major oil spills have taken place in the U.S.

Last week, 10,000 gallons of crude oil leaked from a Sunoco interstate pipeline, “contaminating a large area in the Oak Glen Nature Preserve, near Cincinnati, OH”.

Also last week, an oil pipeline ruptured in northwestern North Dakota, releasing about 34,000 gallons of crude. A state health department inspector told the Associated Press that “the [clean-up] response was focused on keeping oil out of groundwater”.

And, finally, this weekend, an oil barge collided with a ship in Galveston Bay, Texas, releasing 168,000 gallons of crude into the Bay, which drains into the Gulf of Mexico.

According to CBS News, Richard Gibbons, the conservation director of the Houston Audubon Society, stated that there is important shorebird habitat on both sides of the ship channel. “One is the Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary just to the east, which Gibbons said attracts 50,000 to 70,000 shorebirds to shallow mud flats that are perfect foraging habitat.”

Gibbons also told CBS, “the timing really couldn’t be much worse since we’re approaching the peak shorebird migration season.”

New York will see more gas pipelines and related facilities, both downstate and upstate, over the coming years. A liquid natural gas port has also been proposed for the New York coast.

And more crude oil is to be shipped through the Port of Albany. The Times-Union reported earlier this month that “in the last two years, the Port of Albany has become a major shipping point for the oil headed for coastal refineries. Two terminals have state permission to handle 2.8 billion gallons of oil a year.”

On February 28th, thirteen tank cars carrying crude oil at the Selkirk, NY rail yard derailed. According to local news reports, shipper CSX and state regulators said that there were no rollovers, spills or injuries.

Photo credit: jagermesh  via Creative Commons