State’s Brownfield Program Under Scrutiny in Budget Talks

Is the State’s Brownfield Cleanup Program a “giveaway” to developers?

Watchdog groups and elected officials like State Senator Liz Krueger think so. They are supporting Governor Cuomo’s effort to reform the program as part of this year’s budget negotiations.

The Brownfield Cleanup Program provides state tax credits to developers to encourage “private-sector cleanups of brownfields and to reduce development pressure on ‘greenfields’,” says the State.

Brownfield sites are land which is “complicated by the presence or potential presence of…contaminants [such as] hazardous waste and/or petroleum.”

Critics call the program “corporate welfare.” They claim that the high development pressure in places like New York City makes the incentive all but unnecessary, and the funds would be better used to clean up sites in more economically-disadvantaged parts of the state.

“Nearly every inch of Manhattan Island is coveted for high yield development, regardless of the need to mitigate brownfields,” Senator Krueger said in a statement last week.

“Some of the most unjustifiable credits were paid out on my own island of Manhattan—$187 million in costs to the State since 2010, for just six projects.”

According to a new report by Albany watchdog group Environmental Advocates, New York State has used more than $1.4 billion in taxpayer dollars to “pay a small number of developers” to clean up 170 brownfield sites.

“Meanwhile, thousands of contaminated sites await remediation,” says the group.

Double Dipping?

One key problem, reports Environmental Advocates, is that developers can receive tax credits for both the cleanup of a brownfield and for its redevelopment. These redevelopment credits are the main target of reform.

EA notes that since 2008, tax credits issued for cleanup assistance totaled $122 million. Comparatively, over six times as much, almost $800 million, has been paid to developers in brownfield redevelopment credits.

“They [the credits] are a needless giveaway to developers who do not need further encouragement to build in already competitive real estate markets,” the group concluded.

Ripe for Reform

Governor Andrew Cuomo has proposed broad reforms to the Brownfield Cleanup Program in his 2015 Executive Budget.

The changes, which are detailed in the Environmental Advocates report, Ripe for Reform, include:

  • Targeting tax incentives to communities most in need of public investment.
  • Establishing the following redevelopment tax credit eligibility criteria: a site must be located in an economically disadvantaged area, cleanup costs must exceed the post-cleanup value of the property, or the project must provide a substantial amount of affordable housing.


The Cuomo Record: Environment

The following is part of a Gotham Gazette series, The Cuomo Record, examining incumbent Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo’s first term as he seeks re-election heading to Election Day, November 4.

Governor Cuomo has attracted attention throughout his tenure for delaying action on hot button environmental issues. Nowhere is this more glaring, of course, than the question of whether to permit high-volume hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which has been a looming issue his entire term.

Cuomo’s inconsistent and unclear response to issues such as fracking, or whether to allow an Albany facility to begin heating crude oil arriving from the Canadian tar sands, is the tip of the very complicated iceberg that is the incumbent Democratic governor’s record on the environment.

If re-elected, Cuomo faces profound environmental challenges, such as the mounting impacts of climate change and the state’s deteriorating water infrastructure. Cuomo’s policy choices will have a tremendous impact on a range of issues, from brownfields clean-up to air quality.

Depending on who you ask, the Governor’s first term shows a real path forward as the state seeks to develop a 21st century energy supply and delivery system, and adapt to a changing climate. Alternatively, he is seen as fundamentally unsupportive of environmental protection in the sense of consistent and aggressive enforcement of the state’s environmental regulations.

In its endorsement of Governor Cuomo this week, the New York League of Conservation Voters cited “the Governor’s record on clean energy and climate resiliency — two of the most complex yet critical sustainability challenges facing our state.” Cuomo has made substantial progress on these issues, they said, “even at a time of fiscal restraint.”

The governor does not shy away from strong environmental action. His administration is quietly, but effectively working to close the Indian Point nuclear power facility. The State has also asserted its right to control large water withdrawals – by companies and municipalities – from the Great Lakes and local rivers, lakes, streams and groundwater.

But Cuomo is also open about the fact that his lead environmental agency, the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), serves two masters: protecting the ecological and public health of the country’s third most populous state; and promoting economic development.

The governor’s ongoing strategy to balance the two objectives – environmental protection and economic development – raises important questions. State support for a new solar photovoltaic manufacturing facility in Buffalo, for example, shows the great potential of linking environmental and economic goals.

But what happens when one goal conflicts with the other? Laura Haight, Senior Environmental Associate with the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG) responded flatly, “clearly the environment is not a priority for this governor.”

A Red Flag

The governor’s recent attempt to utilize or “raid” $500 million from the Clean Water State Revolving Loan Fund for the construction of the Tappan Zee Bridge raised an enormous red flag for many environmental groups. Those funds were earmarked for water quality improvement projects, they point out.

“What is it ideologically that this administration thought it was OK to take a half-billion dollars that was dedicated to reducing water pollution and instead redirect that to a bridge,” asked Peter Iwanowicz, the Executive Director of Environmental Advocates, an Albany-based watchdog group.

Iwanowicz served in the Spitzer/Paterson administration as deputy secretary for the environment, and then as acting commissioner of the state DEC.

“[The loan attempt] really strikes me as a clear indication of the ideology of this administration, having other priorities than a strong environment,” Iwanowicz argued. He added that he sees a “lack of deep commitment that existed in previous administrations to ensure strong environmental protections.”

Iwanowicz said the difference in approach to environmental protection between Andrew Cuomo and the governors that directly preceded him is like “night and day.”

In response to such criticisms, Emily DeSantis, the state’s chief public information officer for the environment, wrote, “Governor Cuomo has a strong record of advancing policies to protect New York’s land, air, and water while increasing the state’s reliance on clean energy. Any claims otherwise are simply wrong on the facts.”

She added: “Over the past four years, Governor Cuomo has committed more than $17 billion in funding for transformational environmental and clean energy programs, which is more than Governor Pataki did over 12 years.”

[Read more at Gotham Gazette]

Environmentalists See Mixed Bag in Cuomo Budget

Gov. Andrew Cuomo draws a clear connection between extreme weather events like Superstorm Sandy and climate change. And he argues that the challenges posed to New York State by climate change will only grow.

But the governor’s proposed budget this year reveals an uneven focus: major investments in areas like energy efficiency and solar power are coupled with what advocates say is woefully inadequate support for core environmental programs that are on the front-line of the state’s response to climate change.

“It’s great to see that he’s [Cuomo] making that connection [to climate change],” said Dan Hendrick, vice-president for external affairs at the New York League of Conservation Voters. “But…the investments aren’t following. We’re not seeing that broader vision [in terms of] sustainability and resiliency.”

[Read more at the Gotham Gazette.]

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.

A Milestone for Food Metrics in New York

Soon, public school students, hospital patients, and even senior center residents in New York State could find locally grown fruits and vegetables on their daily menus, thanks to a new law passed by Governor Cuomo.

The Food Metrics Bill (S.4061/A.5102), sponsored by Sen. Patty Ritchie and Assemblywoman Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes, mandates that New York State agencies establish a robust tracking and reporting system for all the food they purchase.

The law requires successful bidders on state food contracts to provide the type, dollar value, and geographic origin of all their food to the procuring agency and also requires the Office of General Services and the Department of Agriculture and Markets to develop guidelines for state agencies on increasing their purchase of local foods.

“Eating local is a big trend right now—and it can mean big business for local farmers and food producers. This legislation builds upon that movement, seeking to use the purchasing power of state government to help farmers grow,” said Senator Ritchie.

This bill will provide New York State with valuable (and currently non-existent) baseline data about money being spent on food as well as the geographic source of such food, all with the aim of increasing the amount of local goods purchased by state agencies.

This information will also be shared with the state’s agricultural community, in hopes that farms may tap into the institutional food market by shifting production towards those items shown to be in demand.

Channeling this opportunity to local farms can reduce carbon emissions related to food production and transportation and help keep them profitable, protecting vulnerable farmland from development.

The New York League of Conservation Voters, which works to make environmental sustainability a top political and policy priority in New York State, named State Senator Patty Ritchie a 2013 “Eco-Star” for her work on The Food Metrics Bill.

Taking a Bite out of NYC’s Carbon Emissions

From shopping at Greenmarkets to eating less meat, New Yorkers can reduce their carbon footprint three times a day by making more sustainable food choices—a fact many agriculture groups hope Bill de Blasio will champion during his term as mayor.

Up to 13 percent of all household carbon emissions can be traced back to what we eat and how it’s grown, packed, and shipped. With 8.3 million permanent residents and 52 million tourists visiting annually, New York City requires a lot of food—yet most of it is grown in other states (or even other countries), using pesticides and carbon-intensive growing methods.

Creating sustainable food policies and increasing local food purchasing could not only reduce the city’s carbon footprint, but also support our health, our economy, and our environment.

Putting Things in Context

Food policy is not a new issue for New York City. During the 12 years that Michael Bloomberg served as mayor, his administration maintained a serious focus on public health, working to increase access to fresh, nutritious food for all New Yorkers.

And on a state level, the Food Metrics Bill passed by Governor Andrew Cuomo this past December will ideally lay the groundwork for increased purchasing of local food by state agencies.

But many involved in agriculture and environmental efforts in the city feel Bloomberg missed a critical opportunity to highlight the connection between agriculture and carbon emissions.

For example, the first edition of the landmark PlaNYC was all but silent on the issue of food. The second edition, released in 2011, did introduce food as a “cross-cutting issue,” but devoted only two of the plan’s 98 pages to food, with no concrete policy steps. By comparison, Chicago’s regional plan has an entire chapter devoted to food systems.

Taking Stock

Now that Bill de Blasio has taken office, many are scrambling to understand how his administration will approach these same issues.

While he has not yet tipped his hand with regards to climate change or food policy specifics, there is reason for optimism.

In July of 2009, then-city councilmember Bill de Blasio sponsored the first ever resolution linking food and climate change, “A Resolution to Reduce NYC’s Climate ‘Foodprint.’” In it, de Blasio called for the implementation of Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer’s report “Food in the Public Interest,” a lengthy series of recommendations to increase the availability of locally grown food in New York City.

De Blasio also encouraged the establishment of “FoodprintNYC,” a citywide initiative that would include “climate-friendly food policies and programs, financial and technical support, a public awareness campaign regarding the city’s food consumption and production patterns and greater access to local, fresh, healthy food.”

Specifically, the resolution called for:

  • An analysis of New York City’s foodshed;
  • An expansion of local and/or organic food distribution centers, both wholesale and retail;
  • Increased support for community gardens and urban farming initiatives; and
  • Local food procurement goals of 20% for city-run institutions within 10 years.

Sadly, while Foodprint garnered a respectable number of co-sponsors and a lot of grassroots support, the full council never actually voted on it. Many suspect de Blasio became distracted by his own campaign for public advocate. Others argued that the resolution process was not the best approach for Foodprint in the first place: resolutions are nonbinding and often only express a legislature’s intent.

The Next Four Years

We have yet to see how food and climate priorities will shape de Blasio’s administration, and attempts to reach his office for comment have so far been unsuccessful.

But there is at least some hope that Foodprint remains a guide for future policy work. For one thing, de Blasio participated in the first-ever Mayoral Candidate Forum on the Future of Food in NYC this past July, and did not shy away from making the connection between food, sustainability, and climate change.

And, as the new mayor of a city built on a collection of islands with 520 miles of coastline, one hopes that preparing for and fighting against climate change will become a central tenant of his sustainability platform.

De Blasio’s previous support of Foodprint—and the coalition built around it—proves that he and other New York City policy-makers are aware of the critical connection between food and climate change. Whether he and his administration will take action around these issues remains to be seen.