Mayor de Blasio Names New Head of the City’s DEP

Mayor de Blasio has just announced that Emily Lloyd will replace Carter Strickland as commissioner of the city’s Department of Environmental Protection.

The DEP, with almost 6,000 staff members, manages the New York City water supply system, including its vast upstate watershed, in addition to a wide variety of other regulatory and sustainability planning responsibilities.

The Mayor’s office released the following statement:

“Emily Lloyd, currently the Administrator of Prospect Park and President of the Prospect Park Alliance, is a veteran of city government with the experience and management skills necessary to manage and conserve the city’s thousands of miles of watershed and infrastructure. This is in addition to overseeing the regulation of air quality, hazardous waste, and critical quality of life issues.

She will be tasked with improving the resiliency of the city’s aging water infrastructure to better prepare for upcoming storms, continuing to repair and rebuild after Hurricane Sandy, and helping home and property owners better understand their waters bills and navigate the billing dispute process.”

The Mayor’s Office also released a statement from Ms. Lloyd:

“At a time when natural resources are increasingly scarce and extreme weather events are increasingly common, we need to get much more prudent about managing our water supply and ensuring our infrastructure is ready to handle any storm that might strike next. The very safety and well-being of New Yorkers are at stake.

We also need to create a much more accessible and user-friendly department that serves all New Yorkers – one that allows our customers to understand, and, if necessary, contest and their bills quickly and easily. I’m grateful to be able to take the lead on forging that path.”

News Analysis: It’s Worth Paying Attention to Albany Right Now

There are all sorts of interesting things happening at the state level—big and small—that will impact environmental protection and sustainability going forward.

While there has been a general perception that the state is in a better position financially, the Governor is proposing multi-year tax cuts which impacts any discussion about spending priorities.

State Budget Negotiations and Why They Matter

Later this week, we’ll take a deeper look at a couple of issues that have attracted concern from environmental groups and lawmakers. First, we have updated analysis on the Governor’s proposed allocations for the state’s lead environmental agency, the Department of Environmental Conservation, and the Environmental Protection Fund, both of which, we argue, are critical to New York’s response to climate change.

Advocates say that the Governor will be proposing changes to his draft budget this week.

Watch the DEC State Budget Hearing

The January 29th legislative hearing on the state budget for the DEC provides a interesting window on the environmental concerns of legislators throughout New York, and the DEC’s ability to work with limited resources.

Topics discussed ranged from the need to plug “hundreds, if not thousands” of abandoned gas wells in upstate New York to the DEC’s successful efforts to obtain funding for a new shellfish laboratory on Long Island.

The DEC monitors the safety of shellfish growing areas along the New York coastline, and DEC Commissioner Joseph Martens noted the need for a new lab had been “desperate.”

Cuts to the MTA

Environmental and sustainability advocates are preparing to fight Albany’s plans to “divert dedicated mass transit funds to plug holes in the state budget.”

The New York League of Conservation Voters reports that Governor Cuomo’s proposed budget would cut $40 million from the MTA. These funds currently help to cover the operations, service and maintenance of the transit system.

And, the League adds, “Governor Cuomo is planning to divert these funds not just in 2014, but in 2015, 2016 and beyond. In total, nearly $350 million could be siphoned away from transit.”

Useful Background on the State Budget—Flat Spending and Tax Cuts

Budget analysts point out that the governor’s budget adheres to a 2-percent cap on spending statewide. Most state agencies are seeing reductions or flat funding, Carolyn Boldiston, a senior analyst at the Fiscal Policy Institute, told NYER.

The FPI notes that, in its entirety, the state budget calls for $1.7 billion in spending cuts this year, and much deeper cuts in the years to come. The governor’s office has also called for a steady increase in tax cuts over the next four years, including a proposal to reduce the estate tax by 40 percent. FPI says the reduction in the estate tax alone would cost the state almost $800 million annually.

Taking Environmental Funding to the Voters

The state has experienced nine federally declared disasters since 2011. As Governor Cuomo said at a news conference immediately after Superstorm Sandy, “climate change, extreme weather…and our vulnerability to it…is undeniable today.”

And the state is responding; it says it has embarked on a multi-billion dollar effort to protect its infrastructure, transportation networks, energy supply, coastline, and residents from extreme weather. A significant portion of that work will be federally funded.

But major environmental infrastructure projects, which are critical to public health and sustainability –like smarter wastewater treatment- also need significantly more support than the Governor has proposed, say legislators and advocates.

The chairs of the state assembly and senate Environmental Conservation committees, Robert Sweeney, D-Long Island and Mark Grisanti, R.-Buffalo, introduced legislation last fall calling for a $5 million environmental bond act. The bond act has been described as the largest in the state’s history.

Work is needed on both our wastewater and drinking water systems. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, New York State has reported the need for almost $60 billion worth of drinking water and wastewater infrastructure projects over the next 20 years.

In Rockland County, an insufficient supply of surface drinking water has led to proposals ranging from water recycling to a de-salination plant, which would treat water from the Hudson River. And the quality of the aquifer that supplies Long Island’s drinking water is deteriorating as well, said Assemblyman Sweeney.

Revenue from such a bond act could also help to support the state DEC’s enforcement of the federal Clean Water Act.

Dan Hendrick at the NYLCV told NYER he was unsure that the Cuomo administration would support putting the bond act forward to voters, but agreed that a “broader discussion [is] brewing in the background” regarding how the state can fully fund its environmental programs

“Clearly the infrastructure needs are pretty massive…[but there’s] no thinking outside of the box this year,” Hendrick said.

New Questions about Gas Drilling

This week, we’ll also examine the state’s use of “produced water”, which is a by-product of gas drilling, for de-icing on upstate roads. The practice has attracted considerable attention, and questions from state legislators.

And, it’s worth seeing the testimony earlier this month of State Department of Health Commissioner, Dr. Nirav Shah, regarding the state’s ongoing review of the public health impacts of high-volume hydraulic fracturing.

Will New York Move Full-Force Toward Clean Energy?

The state will hold public hearings on its voluminous draft energy plan this week in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

The state says that the draft 2014 Energy Plan “sets forth a vision for New York’s energy future that connects a vibrant private sector market with communities and individual customers to create a dynamic, affordable clean energy economy.”

According to the state, New York has “already made great strides toward this goal.” They add that renewable power sources—hydro, solar, wind, and other carbon-free solutions—continue to grow as a share of the total energy produced in New York.

As we reported last week, environmental groups are saying that the state needs to put forward actual clean energy targets for its fuel mix in 2030 and 2050.

The state’s plan projects a 50% reduction in carbon emissions from New York State by 2030, and an ambitious 80% reduction in overall green house gas emissions by 2050.

In the News: State Response to Sandy “Blasted” & de Blasio Says City Does Not Have Rebuild $$$

Editor’s Note: There is a noticeable growth in environmental news coverage this year. This week’s review reflects the diversity of topics covered, locally and nationally.

Bronx neighborhood preparing for the worst despite avoiding brunt of Sandy

Hunts Point avoided the wrath of superstorm Sandy, but experts fear the coastal community — and the continent’s largest food distributor — may not be so lucky next time…officials are hoping to secure a state grant to prepare for future havoc. [Daily News]

How much power do cities really have to combat climate change?

The logical question that follows, though, is whether cities trying their darndest to prepare for that future can get very far on their own, in the absence of global protocols and national policies. Bloomberg, a newly minted U.N. special envoy for cities and climate change, founded the group on the premise that they can. [Grist]

Environmental Group Proposes Options for Breached Pond at Jamaica Bay in Queens

On Oct. 29, 2012, the hurricane broke through a berm — an earthen embankment — separating the pond from the bay, leaving a permanent breach and filling the pond with saltwater. Since then, the National Park Service, which manages the wildlife refuge as part of Gateway National Recreation Area, has debated what to do with West Pond. [The New York Times]

New Report Blasts New York’s Response To Superstorm Sandy And Cuts To Emergency Planning

The report, for example, reveals that New York’s emergency services staff is down 50 percent since 2011. The “Notes” document goes further, pointing out that the unit is the size of Iowa’s emergency management office, and cannot be considered a world-class team. [Huffington Post]

New York Might Be First State To Ban Facial Scrub Microbeads

New York State is poised to be the first in the country to ban microbeads, those tiny plastic pebbles found in facial scrubs, balms, and gels, that contaminate our water supply and end up in the Great Lakes. [Gothamist]

Green Bank Will Help Make New York a Cleaner State

Governor Andrew M. Cuomo today announced the start of business operations for the New York Green Bank, which will work to stimulate private sector financing and accelerate the transition to a more cost-effective, resilient and clean energy system. The largest green bank in the nation, the NY Green Bank is seeking proposals from private sector lenders, investors and industry participants that facilitate the financing of creditworthy clean-energy projects in New York State. [NYS Energy Research Development Authority]

Goodbye Styrofoam. City Schools to Serve Lunch on ‘Green’ Trays 

New York City and five other large school districts have banded together to bring environmentally friendly changes to their schools, starting with trays students can throw in the trash without worry. [WNYC]

Battle Over Manhattan Waste Station Now de Blasio’s Problem

An environmental coalition opposed to the East 91st Street Marine Transfer Station is hoping the de Blasio administration will take another look at the city’s Solid Waste Management Plan, dating back to 2006. [WNYC]

Despite Costs, Most Americans Want Action on Climate Change, Report Finds

A large majority of Americans — 83 percent — say the U.S. should make an effort to reduce global warming, even if those efforts have economic costs, according to a new report from the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication. As many as 56 percent of Americans would be willing to pay an extra $100 each year if their power company would generate 20 percent of its electricity from renewable sources. [Yale Digest]

City budget leaves big questions — contracts, Sandy aid, — unanswered

“It’s abundantly clear from what we’ve laid out here that these resources are not available at the city level,” de Blasio added. “And the federal government has an obligation to all parts of the country in the midst of these kinds of disasters.” [Staten Island Advance]

Study Finds Underestimated Methane Emissions Negate Industry Claims of Fracked Gas’ Benefits

“The first thorough comparison of evidence for natural gas system leaks confirms that organizations including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have underestimated U.S. methane emissions generally, as well as those from the natural gas industry specifically. [EcoWatch]

Slush Meets Sewage

On Dec. 15, Flushing Bay in Queens received untreated sewage for seven hours, while in Brooklyn, the Gowanus Canal experienced a three-hour influx of untreated sewage. The city Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) attributed the incidents to “weather conditions.” [The New York World]

Next Week! Your Chance to Weigh In on New York State’s Energy Future

Concerned about where your energy comes from? Are you wondering if our use of renewable power sources, like solar and wind, will increase? Do you have questions about nuclear power? How about our increasing use of natural gas?

The state will be holding public hearings on its Draft Energy Plan next week in Brooklyn and Manhattan, and on Long Island in early March (see details below).

The hearings are during the work week which make them less accessible. New Yorkers can also comment online until March 31st. Additional public hearings on the plan are supposed to take place in Buffalo, Syracuse, and Albany.

Trying to Make Sense of 600 Pages

In the next couple weeks, we will be selecting individual pieces of the enormous plan that we—and others—think are particularly noteworthy.

The Governor’s new initiatives on renewable energy and clean technology are outlined in the plan. One of the most meaningful clean energy steps the state is taking is a massive investment—$1 billion—in solar energy.

The ten-year statewide solar program would increase solar power generation ten-fold to 3,000 megawatts, which, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, could power almost half a million homes. The state has also proposed a program to put solar panels on schools.

Concerns from Some Environmental Organizations

The state’s plan projects a 50% reduction in carbon emissions from New York State by 2030, and an 80% reduction in overall green house gas emissions by 2050.

Some environmental organizations argue that because these emissions targets are partially dependent on the increased use of natural gas across New York, the plan “perpetuates” the use of fossil fuels.

“If gas companies spend billions on a new natural gas infrastructure they will want to see a return on this investment, which would tie us to natural gas for many, many years,” said Wes Gillingham, Catskill Mountainkeeper’s program director, in a statement.

Gillingham’s comments were echoed by groups like United for Action and the Alliance for a Green Economy.

Gillingham said it was necessary for the state to take a hard look at the “impacts of natural gas infrastructure, and the increased methane emissions that would come with it.”

There is a spectrum of opinions within the environmental community about the strength of the state’s commitment to the use of renewables vis a vis gas. Richard Schrader, the New York State legislative director for the NRDC, was more optimistic that the balance between renewables, like solar and wind, and natural gas, would ultimately swing toward renewables.

In light of new funding for solar, and because the state is establishing a “Green Bank” to stimulate private investment in clean energy, Schrader told NYER this week that renewables would make a real “dent” in New York’s future use of natural gas.

What Are the State’s Energy Targets?

The Alliance for a Green Economy (AGREE), which includes the Atlantic Chapter of the Sierra Club, has conducted an initial analysis of the energy plan and noted that, “the 80% reduction [in green house gases] by 2050 is ambitious, and it represents a victory for the environmental movement that the state is not backing off from that commitment.”

But AGREE’s authors argue that, “the plan is fairly light, however, on details for how that 80% reduction will be achieved and what the 2030 or 2050 energy mixes might look like…The…Plan should clarify the target fuel mix for 2030 and 2050. Doing so would not only help with infrastructure and policy planning, but it will help energy experts and advocacy organizations better evaluate the plan.”

AGREE raises questions, for example, about whether the state will continue to use nuclear power until 2050. Governor Cuomo has indicated in the past that he believes Indian Point should ultimately be closed. The reactors at Indian Point, which is located in Westchester County, are currently undergoing a lengthy license renewal process.

Public Hearings on the State’s Draft Energy Plan

Wednesday, 2/19/14 at 3pm
Brooklyn College, Gold Room, Student Center, 6th Floor, Campus Road & East 27th Street, Brooklyn, NY

Thursday, 2/20/14 at 10am
John Jay College, 2nd floor, 524 West 59 Street, between 10th and 11th Avenues, New York, NY

Long Island
Monday, 3/3/14 at 1pm;
SUNY Farmingdale, Little Theater at Roosevelt Hall, Melville Road, Farmingdale, New York

Mayor de Blasio, We’ve Got Some Questions for You!

Monday afternoon, from the stage of LaGuardia Community College in Queens, Mayor Bill de Blasio gave his first official State of the City address. The 43-minute-speech contained an ambitious agenda covering some of his most core objectives: income inequality, universal pre-K, a living wage, and affordable housing.

It’s worth noting, though, that aside from reaffirming support for ongoing Superstorm Sandy recovery, de Blasio’s speech was absent of any details around climate change, conservation, or sustainable development.

As we await more information from de Blasio’s about his sustainability agenda, NYER will be posing some questions of our own to the administration focused on what it will take to develop a truly sustainable* New York City.

Tell us what your questions for the Mayor are! Hopefully we’ll be hearing from him soon.

*Just a note to our readers: we’re defining “sustainable” quite broadly in this instance—anything from a long-term vision for energy and water use to pollution control, climate resilience, food supply, waste management, or other issues.

Part One

  1. What do you believe is the greatest environmental challenge facing New York City?
  2. What is your vision for a truly sustainable New York City?
  3. Do you plan to maintain the sustainability planning infrastructure put in place by Mayor Bloomberg, such as the Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability? Will PlaNYC remain the sustainability blueprint for New York City? Will you continue to update PlaNYC?
  4. How do you view the potential impact of climate change on New York City? Do you think that climate change poses one overarching threat to the city, or are there a number of issues/challenges that climate change will create?
  5. What is your position on “Zone A” areas throughout New York? Will these areas eventually need to be evacuated full-scale as sea levels rise? How can residents—especially those living in public housing developments—and businesses in these areas be adequately protected?
  6. Every year, NYC agencies spend more than $250 million on food—for meals served in schools, hospitals, prisons, eldercare facilities, and more. Focusing this spending on fresh food grown by NYS farms could support job growth, public health, and our environment. Would you support this effort, and if so, what strategies might you employ to make it happen?
  7. What do you think about establishing an “NYC Department of Food” to continue the Bloomberg administration’s work on food access issues, coordinate food policy citywide, and engage with State and Federal officials around food and farm policy at a state level?
  8. More than three million New Yorkers live in low-income communities that lack access to affordable, wholesome food — how might your Tale of Two Cities narrative expand to include the issue of food justice?

In the News: climate change on the move, preparations in NYS, and another pipeline?

New York Rising program director gives update on resiliency efforts

Rubin said the state is embarking on a $17 billion strategy that will transform New York’s infrastructure, transportation networks, energy supply, coastal protection, weather warning system and emergency management to better protect New Yorkers from future extreme weather. [NYLCV]

With its namesake canal finally getting clean, Gowanus grows

But dirty waters or no, given the Brooklyn real estate boom and Gowanus’ choice location, it was only a matter of time before serious money moved in. And that time appears to be now, as a number of large developers are charging ahead with plans for the area. [New York Post]

USDA to open sites to help farmers, ranchers cope with climate change

“The Obama administration has selected the locations for seven new regional centers that will help farmers and ranchers adjust to the increasing risks and extreme weather associated with climate change…The…climate hubs will link local agriculture producers with universities, industry groups, state governments and federal agencies such as the Department of Interior and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. [Los Angeles Times]

Bloomberg Aims to Motivate World Leaders to Cut Greenhouse Gases

Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg aims to use his new role as U.N. envoy on cities and climate change to help “frustrated” U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon motivate world leaders to cut greenhouse gas emissions by showing them progress made by large cities. [Huffington Post]

Watch 63 Years of Global Warming in 14 Seconds

Updated to include 2013, this iconic animation from our friends at NASA depicts how temperatures around the globe have warmed since 1950. [Climate Central]

Stay Tuned for the Weather

“I’m a huge fan of the work that Andy Revkin did for years at The New York Times,” Roberts, who left the Times for Mashable, said. “He was truly one of those real ground-breaking writers … he hasn’t been as active as he had been and I guess you could say there is a journalistic opportunity to step in and do some of the work he did for the Times.” [Capital New York]

A new proposal to ship fracked gas across New York

A proposed multi-billion dollar pipeline would ship natural gas fracked in other states across the Capital region of New York and into New England. The 250-mile Northeast Expansion pipeline would cross Albany, Rensselaer and Columbia counties before it enters Massachusetts… [Capital New York]

And a very interesting tool to look at the impact of climate change on New York and other cities across the globe…

Obama Announces Regional “Climate Hubs”

The Obama administration announced Wednesday the creation of seven regional “climate hubs” designed to help farmers, ranchers, and rural communities combat the effects of climate change, including drought, floods, pests, and fires.

New York State will be serviced by the Northeast Hub, stationed in Durham, New Hampshire.

The move is one of several executive actions that President Obama has said he will take on climate change without action from Congress.

According to an article by Think Progress:

…the centers will look into climate forecasting and data, risk assessment, and how to adapt farming and livestock practices to climate change and new forms of extreme weather. They’ll also serve as an information and coordination hub for their particular region, linking farmers and ranchers up with universities, government agencies, scientific research centers, and other groups in an effort to spread the best farming practices and the best climate adaptation strategies.
These hubs are intended to help the federal government synchronize its climate resources with what other entities, such as universities and state governments are doing to prepare for shifting weather patterns.

Response to this announcement has been mixed, primarily because designation as a hub comes with no new funding or resources; rather the centers will focus on “repackaging climate change information… in user-friendly ways and getting it into the hands of the people who need it most.”

Hubs will be located in USDA facilities and will network with on-the-ground public, academic, and private sector organizations, researchers, and outreach specialists in order to disseminate information and guidance on technologies and risk management practices at regional and local scales.

How does this move fit into the President’s larger climate agenda? The New York times analyzes it this way:

In substance, the creation of the climate hubs is a limited step, but it is part of a broader campaign by the administration to advance climate policy wherever possible with executive authority. The action is also part of a push to build political support for the administration’s more divisive moves on climate change — in particular, the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulations on coal-fired power plants.

Hubs will be located in Ames, Iowa; Corvallis, Oregon; Durham, New Hampshire; El Reno, Oklahoma; Fort Collins, Colorado; Las Cruces, New Mexico; and Raleigh, North Carolina.

Image credit: USDA

Hudson Valley “Farm Hub” To Preserve Land, Educate Young Farmers

An innovative Hudson Valley project may soon have a storied parcel of farmland producing new farmers in addition to fruits and vegetables.

At the end of December 2013, the NoVo Foundation—run by Warren Buffett’s son Peter and his wife Jennifer—announced that it had purchased Gill Farm, a 75-year-old family-run vegetable operation covering more than 1,200 acres, for $13 million.

The Foundation intends to eventually transfer the property to an independent nonprofit organization that will operate it as a “farm hub”—a center dedicated to sustainable agriculture, farmer training, and related services.

Stemming the Tide of Development

Located just 100 miles from New York City in the town of Hurley, the Hudson Valley Farm Hub aims to become a regional farming center for sustainable agriculture by offering training and other services, all with the goal of preserving valuable farmland and educating a new generation of growers.

The need for such a project is great: The American Farmland Trust figures show that New York has been losing farmland at a rate equivalent to one farm every 3½ days. In fact, the Hudson Valley’s core counties—Columbia, Dutchess, Greene, Orange, Putnam, Rockland, Sullivan, Ulster and Westchester—lost more than 10,000 farms and more than one million farm acres between 1950 and 2007, according to federal statistics.

The new Farm Hub will offer beginning and established farmers a range of resources, including:

  • Hands-on training in sustainable farming practices to meet modern-day challenges;
  • Marketing assistance to help grow their businesses;
  • Information on cutting-edge practices and technologies that promote resilient agriculture;
  • Assistance with secure and affordable access to land; and
  • Expanded access to capital to establish and expand their farming operations.

A central part of the program will be the creation of “incubator farms,” plots ranging from three to 20 acres to be worked by new farmers without the pressures of finding and investing in affordable land.

Making the Transition

While excitement for the project, which could eventually be the largest incubator project in the country, is running high, there are lingering concerns among Hudson Valley residents about its scale and impact.

While the Hub aims to eventually turn out new local farmers and business owners, there will be some immediate job losses—up to 100 migrant workers who found employment at Gill Farm will be displaced by this transition.

Other established farmers have expressed concern about changes to the grower community created by an influx of young farmers, and the ability for existing growers to compete with a flood of “foundation-supported” vegetables.

Bob Dandrew, a representative for the project, tried to address some of these concerns at a December press conference. “We know in New York City alone, there is unmet demand for local food of more than $1 billion a year. I’m convinced if we do it right, we can help our farmers get access to that market and make really great things happen, ” said Dandrew. Assistance in developing a cohesive marketing strategy will be part of the incubator process.

It also helps that John Gill, the farm’s current owner and life-long Ulster County resident, will be involved in the transition of the property from private farm to education and research center and will remain in the position of Farm Manager.

“It’s always been important to me that our farm remains a working farm – this way I can preserve my grandfather’s and my father’s legacy,” said Gill at the press event.  “I’m really happy that I’ll be involved in the next chapter, and to know that the farm will always remain viable and help prepare future generations of farmers.”

Master planning for the new Farm Hub will begin in early 2014 and programs are slated to begin operations on-site by the spring of 2015.

Is There Any Budget Relief in Sight for State’s Lead Environmental Agency?

Now that state budget negotiations are in full force, the issue of resources for the Department of Environmental Conservation is back at the forefront.

Is the DEC fully equipped to protect our natural environment and residents from pollution, climate change and other threats? This question has been raised repeatedly by environmental groups and state legislators during the last few years, and now that the economic picture for the state is showing some improvement, the issue has more potency.

So far, the Governor’s proposed budget this year “raises questions about DEC’s ability to do its job with increasingly limited resources” stated the New York League of Conservation Voters recently on its website.

The DEC, whose mission is “to conserve, improve and protect New York’s natural resources and environment and to prevent, abate and control water, land and air pollution,” has lost approximately 800 staff members since 2008. The agency now has 2,700 full-time employees throughout the state.

“These are very substantial reductions,” said state Assembly Member Brian Kavanagh (D) in an interview friday. “Oversight has diminished…I believe there is less enforcement activity. There’s a sense that the DEC is less able to respond if you’re not doing the right thing,” he added.

An Expansive Mandate

The DEC’s responsibilities include everything from monitoring and reducing air pollution to inspecting sewage treatment plants to the upkeep of state-owned hiking trails.

The agency enforces New York State’s environmental conservation laws. The DEC is also designated by the federal Environmental Protection Agency to enforce provisions of the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, which apply to a reported 33,000 pollution sources statewide.

And the agency describes itself as “tackling urgent issues,” like the mounting impacts of climate change and the spread of invasive species.

Kavanagh, who represents the Upper East Side of Manhattan, leads the newly formed New York State Caucus of Environmental Legislators, which includes members of the state Assembly and Senate, both democrats and republicans. He said there was significant interest on the part of other caucus members in getting more resources to the DEC.

“We are early in the budget process- this is going to be an ongoing conversation,” Kavanagh said.

While funding for the DEC has remained relatively stable under the Cuomo administration, the Governor has not rebuilt the agency’s workforce, which was decimated after the economic downturn that began in 2007. The Governor’s proposed budget for 2014-15 includes funding for one new staff person.

The DEC has also lost $43 million in capital funding, which came from federal stimulus dollars and the 1996 Clean Water/Clean Air Bond Act, according to Environmental Advocates, a non-profit group in Albany that monitors the agency.

The Governor’s office says that taking capital projects, staffing and operational expenses throughout the state into account, the DEC’s 2014-15 budget will stand at $1 billion.

Trying to Measure the Impact of Staff Cuts

How is the public supposed to understand the loss of 800 DEC employees since 2008? What sort of impact does the shrinking of an agency like the DEC have on environmental and public health?

Kavanagh and groups like Environmental Advocates stress that they believe DEC employees have made an enormous effort to continue the agency’s mandate, but Kavanagh notes, “something has to give…they’re trying to act efficiently [but] important objectives suffer.”

Kavanagh said that he feels the state’s oversight of hazardous waste has diminished because of staffing cuts. The DEC has disputed previous charges about insufficient monitoring of hazardous waste. He also pointed out that there are abandoned gas wells throughout New York that need to be safely capped. “This will happen more quickly or more slowly depending on resources,” he said.

A September, 2013 analysis of state data reported to the EPA found that the state’s “formal enforcement” of provisions related to the federal Clean Air, Clean Water and Resource Conservation Acts had “decreased by nearly 25% between 2009 and 2012.” Environmental Advocates, which authored the study, charged that inspections of polluting facilities overall dropped by 35% during the same period.

As an example, the group’s analysis cited data reported to federal authorities regarding “major” entities releasing effluent into the state’s waterways. “DEC inspections of Major discharging facilities fell dramatically between 2009 and 2012,” notes the report.

“Major,” according to Environmental Advocates, refers to large industrial facilities, energy producers, and wastewater treatment plants which discharge more than one million gallons per day, or that release “higher-risk” pollutants.

“Despite finding 76% percent of Major facilities were out of compliance with their permits…DEC inspections fell from a strong enforcement presence of 74% of major facilities inspected in 2009 to just 16% in 2012,” note the authors. This left “regulators blind to violations and the public vulnerable to illegal pollution.”

The DEC responded forcefully to Environmental Advocates’ report last fall. The agency issued a statement saying that the report “distorts key facts, omits others, and outright ignores this administration’s strong environmental record. It’s disappointing that even after DEC officials provided Environmental Advocates with correct data, they proceeded to publish inaccurate information.”

Katherine Nadeau, the policy director at Environmental Advocates, told New York Environment Report last week that “we are 100% solid in our data—it’s all public.”

“This administration thinks they can do this [enforce all existing laws] with the current level of resources,” noted Kavanagh. Indeed, the DEC has taken significant steps to manage enforcement in new ways with less manpower, including the establishment of a program in which environmental offenders can see penalties dropped in exchange for turning themselves in.

Is there an environmental crisis in the making? “There’s a broad range between catastrophe and an optimal level of funding,” Kavanagh observed.

More Resources for Other State Environmental Programs

The Cuomo administration has proposed a new appropriation of $100 million for the continuation of the State Superfund program, which focuses on “identifying, investigating and cleaning up sites where consequential amounts of hazardous waste may exist.”

An additional four million is to be added to the state’s Environmental Protection Fund, which is supported by the Real Estate Transfer Tax and underwrites a wide array of environmental projects throughout the state.

Environmental groups like the New York League of Conservation Voters had recommended a $200 million replenishment for the Environmental Protection Fund, which saw diminished contributions during the Great Recession.

“This year’s $4 million EPF increase stands in stark contrast to the massive investments the governor is proposing for technological upgrades,” blogged Dan Hendrick of the New York League of Conservation Voters.

The Fund has been utilized in counties throughout the state since 1993. Over $220 million have gone to projects in the five boroughs alone.

In the Bronx, the Fund has invested over $27 million in improvements for public parks, waterfront revitalization and water quality projects along the Hudson, Harlem and Bronx Rivers, and new recycling initiatives in the business community, according to the Friends of New York’s Environment.

Given the state’s somewhat improved fortunes, is there a real possibility that the legislature could push for an increase to the DEC’s budget this year?

“People who are concerned about these issues should be engaging…and view the [budget] hearings, said Kavanagh. “We know there are people on the other side of this who would prefer less enforcement,” he observed.

In the News: Why We Blog & an under-reported development in NYS decision on fracking

Journalists on the Environment Beat Look Ahead

How you head toward 9 billion people with the fewest regrets is not a news story. It’s an ongoing question. And anyone who says there’s a single answer is not being truthful. So the only form of journalism that really captures that well is an ongoing conversation, which is a blog… [Dot Earth blog]

Veil may be pulled from NY’s review of fracking in 2014: State has 45 days to begin releasing files on health review

Under the threat of a lawsuit by a citizens action group called Seneca Lake Pure Waters Association, Cuomo’s administration settled a case to release administrative documents, letters, and other records detailing the [state] Department of Health study that will determine the outcome of the governor’s decision to allow or ban fracking – whenever that decision might come. [Shale Gas Review]

Report: Parts of Brooklyn still reeling from Sandy

More than a year after Sandy, many [coastal] areas have not fully recovered and much still needs to be done to repair the damage and beef up Brooklyn’s resiliency for the next time. [Brooklyn Daily Eagle]

Is Poor Maintenance of Rooftop Water Tanks Endangering New York City’s High Quality Drinking Water?

An investigation by Times reporters Ray Rivera, Frank G. Runyeon and Russ Buettner has found muddy sediment and e-coli bacteria accumulated at the bottom of some water tanks that the Times recently sampled in Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn. In addition, the Times reports, such water tanks may not have been cleaned or inspected for years, in apparent violation of the City’s health code. [NRDC blog]

Coney Island Garden Uprooted for Theater

The Boardwalk Community Garden, just steps from Coney Island’s beach, was a place where the neighborhood’s needy residents grew and reaped fresh produce for the dinner table for about 17 years. But before dawn on Dec. 28, bulldozers and backhoes rolled in and leveled the plot of land at West 22nd Street and the Boardwalk, destroying produce still waiting to be harvested. [The Wall Street Journal]

State confirms that no permits for natural gas drilling will be issued in 2014

“[State] Environmental Conservation Commissioner Joe Martens told legislators Wednesday that he has “absolutely no” plans to issue permits to drilling companies in 2014, clearing the way for Gov. Cuomo to run for reelection without having to deal with the controversial issue. [New York Daily News]

U.N. appoints former NYC Mayor Bloomberg cities, climate change envoy

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Friday appointed former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg as his special envoy for cities and climate change, in a bid to build momentum ahead of a planned U.N. summit meeting in September. [Reuters]

Sneak Peek Avenue V Pump Station

Construction is nearly complete on an extensive, $200 million rehabilitation project at the century-old Avenue V Pumping Station in Gravesend, Brooklyn. When work is finished later this year, the Station will be able to pump 80 million gallons of wastewater a day to the Owl’s Head Wastewater Treatment Plant during wet weather…The upgrade will help reduce combined sewer overflows and improve water quality in Coney Island Creek. [NYC DEP Weekly Pipeline]

The Newtown Creek “Magic Lantern” Show

A photographer and blogger, Mitch has been wandering around the currently undefended border of Brooklyn and Queens for several years. Documenting the rich history and environmental issues which plague the largely unknown 3.8 mile long waterway, found at the center of New York City and recently named to the Federal Superfund list, Mitch has visited its hidden corners and works to reveal its obscure story. [Brooklyn Brainery]