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.