New York needs to invest at least $36 billion in upgrading critical wastewater infrastructure across the state. The problem has been described by the state’s lead environmental agency as “a gathering storm.”
“Sewage and wastewater treatment facilities in New York State are deteriorating. Almost all of New York’s residents rely on these facilities to treat sewage and wastewater from our homes and businesses before they return it to our waterbodies,” says the Department of Environmental Conservation.
“However, one-quarter of the 610 facilities in New York are operating beyond their useful life expectancy and many others are using outmoded, inadequate technology, increasing their likelihood of tainting our waters,” the DEC reports.
Treating wastewater adequately is essential for public health and economic development, maintains the state. Upgrading our water quality infrastructure is “critically needed,” the DEC states plainly on its website.
Yet some of New York’s leading environmental organizations are saying that Governor Cuomo’s proposed 2015 budget does not begin to address the seriousness of the issue. Specifically, they are arguing that the state needs to create an “Infrastructure Bank” to assist local municipalities who have no way of raising the funds necessary to complete large water quality infrastructure projects.
How would an infrastructure bank be seeded? The state’s “windfall bank settlement” is mentioned as a possible source of funding for sewage and wastewater treatment projects.
“In recent statements, Gov. Andrew Cuomo touted the high value of a “clean water supply that is vital to the livelihood of all New Yorkers” and said “New York does more than any other state to finance local wastewater infrastructure projects that protect the environment and support jobs.” It is true that the New York state Environmental Facilities Corp. has played a pivotal role in providing low-cost financing for wastewater projects. Yet with the financial struggles of many municipalities — even with low-cost loan programs in place, an infrastructure bank to support clean water for all is needed in this year’s state budget.
We applauded when the governor said he would propose using bank settlement funds to help seed an infrastructure bank with the ability to make “gap-closing grants.” …………
However, New York state has not yet established a new dedicated wastewater infrastructure bank. The only funding stream proposed by Gov. Cuomo, in his executive budget is an Upstate regional competition, through which dollars would be awarded to three out of seven eligible regions. Long Island, New York City and Buffalo are not eligible and there’s no assurance that clean water infrastructure would be funded as part of any region’s plan……
The deterioration of roads and bridges is clear to see. But the deterioration is more severe below ground, as those who have dealt with sewage backing up in basements and spilling into creeks know all too well. The state Department of Environmental Conservation has documented the need for investment in wastewater statewide is at least $36 billion…………………
Ask local leaders about their challenges, and investing in wastewater infrastructure is at or near the top of the list. These are real local costs that most communities cannot bear — especially with a 2 percent tax cap that inhibits long-term investment…..
It has been 50 years since New York voters approved a $1 billion Pure Waters Bond Act, at a time when the statewide need for sewer infrastructure was estimated at $1.7 billion. The investment paid dividends in clean water and proud communities. We’re overdue for another bold investment or at least a modest but real investment.”
This story was updated at 3pm on January 20th. We received information from the City of New York regarding their review of the expansion of the Algonquin Pipeline, and its potential impact on the Catskill Aqueduct.
A natural gas pipeline, which crosses over a major New York City drinking water aqueduct, will be increased in size as part of a multi-state pipeline expansion and replacement project. The “Algonquin Incremental Market Project” is currently under review by federal and state regulators.
The expansion of the Algonquin Pipeline within the Lower Hudson River Valley has attracted attention for several reasons, including the possibility that a new section of the pipeline will enter the grounds of the Indian Point nuclear power facility.
A final environmental review of the four-state pipeline project is expected to be released this week by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. A local group claims they have collected over 26,000 signatures requesting that federal regulators deny approval for the Algonquin project.
Crossing Paths with a NYC Water Tunnel
The Algonquin Pipeline, which delivers gas to Southern New England, crosses over the Catskill Aqueduct near Cortlandt, New York.
The 91-mile long Catskill Aqueduct supplies approximately 40 percent of New York City’s drinking water. The aqueduct runs from the Ashokan Reservoir in the Catskill Mountains, down to a large reservoir in Westchester, and terminates at the Hillview Reservoir in Yonkers.
Hillview then feeds City Tunnels 1 and 2, which bring water into New York City.
The Algonquin’s operator, Texas-based Spectra Energy, is seeking to replace the 26-inch pipeline crossing above the Aqueduct with one that is 42-inches in diameter.
According to federal regulators, “as with the existing pipeline, the new pipeline would be located above the aqueduct and would rest on concrete pads to provide adequate separation and protection for the aqueduct pipe.”
Gas Infrastructure Continues to Expand
High-volume hydraulic fracturing was recently banned in New York State, but expansion of the state’s gas pipeline network continues. Natural gas entering New York is being extracted in a number of western and Gulf Coast states, and, to a growing degree, in the Marcellus Shale region.
According to Spectra, the purpose of the Algonquin project is to expand its existing pipeline system from an interconnection at Ramapo, New York in order to deliver up to 342,000 dekatherms of gas per day to consumers in Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts.
Roughly 2,600 “average size” homes could be heated for one year with 342,000 dekatherms of gas.
The work proposed for the Algonquin is an extensive upgrade which anticipates growing demand for natural gas across Southern New England. Supply bottlenecks in New York State are contributing to “price volatility” across the region say pipeline developers.
Spectra plans to replace 26.3 miles of existing pipeline; 11.3 miles of new pipeline will also be constructed.
Six existing gas compressor stations in New York, Connecticut, and Rhode Island will be upgraded to add more horsepower. Twenty-four meter and regulating stations will be upgraded, and three more M & R stations will be constructed.
But as gas infrastructure expands, local residents and government seem more inclined to proceed with caution.
The Westchester, Putnam and Rockland county legislatures have all passed resolutions calling for more information about the environmental and public health impacts of the Algonquin expansion project, and more oversight. For instance, the Rockland County legislature passed a resolution in September stating that:
1.) before permits are issued, an independent air emissions baseline assessment be conducted in the areas directly impacted by the proposed compressor and metering and regulating stations modifications;
2) the pipeline be continually monitored by an independent expert acceptable to industry, local government officials, advocates and the public, funded by Spectra Energy; and
3) results of the continuous monitoring of air, water, land and all other environmental impacts be reported daily to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and the EPA, and made available to the public in a transparent manner.
Regulators found that “construction and operation of the Project could result in numerous impacts on the environment.” Wildlife and their habitats would be affected, said FERC, as would 24 acres of New York wetlands and fisheries of “special concern.”
Nonetheless, the agency found that “most impacts would be reduced to less-than-significant levels.”
The New York portion of the Algonquin expansion project crosses 39 waterbodies, including the Hudson River. Those waterbodies are located within 8 “sub-basin” watersheds in Rockland, Westchester and Putnam Counties.
FERC noted in its review that it had received questions from the public about the pipeline’s proximity to the Indian Point nuclear power facility in Westchester County. A new section of the pipeline will run under the Hudson River from Rockland County and reportedly cross Indian Point’s property about a quarter-mile south of the reactors.
Spectra has told FERC that “because of the distance of the proposed project from…[Indian Point] and the avoidance and mitigation measures that it would implement, the proposed route would not pose any new safety hazards” to the power plant.
In November, LoHud reported that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission concluded that the new pipeline crossing Indian Point’s property “will not add significant risks to the safety of the reactors.”
The NRC’s reassurance that a possible pipeline accident on the grounds of Indian Point -such as an explosion- would not be a safety hazard drew criticism.
“It just defies logic,” given the size of the potential impact zone, Westchester Legislator Peter Harckham told LoHud.
Protecting NYC’s Watersheds & Water Supply Infrastructure
Similarly, federal regulators are saying that “protection measures” implemented by Spectra will ensure that construction and operation of the Algonquin project will not result in “significant impacts” on New York City’s surface water resources.
The Croton, Catskill, and Delaware water supply systems together deliver roughly a billion gallons of water every day to almost half of the state’s population. The Catskill and Delaware systems are located about 50 miles north and northwest of the Algonquin project facilities. However, expansion work on two sections of Algonquin pipeline will take place within the Croton watershed, closer to New York City.
How does Spectra plan to protect the watershed as it carries out pipeline construction?
The company says it has specialized procedures for potential issues like erosion and sediment control, spill prevention and mitigation, “unexpected contamination encounters,” and stormwater management.
The prospect of widening the Algonquin Pipeline as it runs over the Catskill aqueduct seems to have attracted more focused attention from FERC. Federal regulators ordered Spectra to consult with the New York City Department of Environmental Protection to develop a final crossing plan for the Catskill Aqueduct.
“Algonquin should file with the [FERC] Secretary a site-specific crossing plan for the Catskill Aqueduct developed in consultation with the NYC DEP,” wrote FERC’s reviewers.
“At a minimum, the plan should include the location of the proposed pipeline relative to the aqueduct, the proposed construction methods, the timing of construction, any mitigation measures that would be implemented to minimize impacts on the aqueduct, and documentation of consultation with the NYC DEP,” FERC stated in its draft review.
Has Spectra followed through on FERC’s order?
Adam Bosch, Director of Public Affairs for the DEP’s Bureau of Water Supply, told NYER that Spectra “has submitted some preliminary design drawings to DEP, which are currently under review to ensure their proposal for a larger pipe would not pose a threat to our infrastructure or impede our access for regular maintenance to the Catskill Aqueduct.”
“At this point we’re unable to say when our review of their preliminary design would be complete, or if we’re going to require any changes to what they’ve presented,” Bosch concluded.
Public Hearings this Week
In addition to a final federal approval, the Algonquin project also requires specific permits and approvals from the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation. These include Air Title V permits for the proposed compressor station upgrades, as well as a Water Quality Certification, Stream Disturbance and Freshwater Wetlands permits for portions of the pipeline upgrades.
The DEC has extended the public comment period through February 27th on these applications and draft permits. Comments can be submitted to DEC Project Manager Michael Higgins at AIMProject@dec.ny.gov.
State DEC hearings on the project will be held in Brewster this Wednesday, January 21st, at 6 p.m. Location: Henry H. Wells Middle School Auditorium, 570 Route 312.
And in Stony Point on Thursday, January 22nd, at 6 p.m. Location: Stony Point Community Center, 5 Clubhouse Lane.
The state DEC is also reviewing a separate pipeline that will cut through Broome, Chenango, Delaware, and Schoharie counties. The contested 124-mile Constitution pipeline will ferry natural gas directly from the Marcellus Shale fields in Pennsylvania to New York and, ultimately, other Northeast states.
The Constitution Pipeline was approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in December and now awaits final approval from New York State.
Throughout January, we will be featuring critical local environmental issues that are likely to see significant action this year.
In bright sunshine, a group of New Yorkers in flowing garb wades into the waters of Coney Island Creek. They run their arms through the glistening water, and then raise their hands in prayer.
This beautiful scene appears in a short film about Coney Island Creek by Charles Denson which shows the love that local residents have for the Creek, and the multitude of ways they use it.
Coney Island Creek, like all of the City’s waterways, has endured decades of pollution and a host of environmental stresses. One major source of pollution into the Creek has been the periodic release of untreated sewage and stormwater from a sewer outflow point.
The City says it has invested $166 million in order to drastically reduce the releases to a level of 37 million gallons entering the Creek per year.
Thirty Billion Gallons
In total, almost 30 billion gallons of raw sewage and polluted stormwater are discharged annually into New York City’s waterways. The releases cause environmental damage, and put kayakers, swimmers, fishing enthusiasts and other New Yorkers into potential contact with pathogenic bacteria and other toxic substances.
Environmental groups and the State of New York say the City is not doing enough to ensure that local waterways like Coney Island Creek and Jamaica Bay are safe for public use all year round.
A fundamental dispute between the City and the State is how far the City should be expected to go to meet the goals of the federal Clean Water Act- that all public waterways be fishable and swimmable.
Advocates also say that the City’s efforts to address the problem do not incorporate public input in a meaningful or transparent way.
“The [City’s] current LTCP [Long Term Sewage Overflow Control Plan] development process is deeply flawed, both in process and in substance,” said a coalition of watchdog and environmental groups in a recent letter to the City.
The City argues that it has made significant progress, more than doubling the amount of raw sewage captured prior to storm-related releases. Almost $2 billion has been spent to control raw sewage discharges, and there are plans to spend $2 billion more, they add.
Last month, the State announced plans to update its water quality regulations. This pushes the issue forward, and may compel the City to adopt more stringent sewage control goals than are currently in place. The public can ask questions and offer their opinions about the updated standards at a hearing with state officials on January 27th.
Raw Sewage Releases: A Systemic Issue
Approximately 70 percent of New York’s sewers are combined. This means that household and industrial wastewater, rainwater, and street runoff -1.3 billion gallons daily- are all collected in the same sewers and conveyed together to the City’s 14 treatment plants.
During heavy rains or snow, combined sewers can fill to capacity and are then unable to carry household and storm sewage to treatment plants. The mix of excess storm water and untreated sewage must be released directly into the city’s waterways.
There are over 400 combined sewer overflow (CSO) release points throughout the five boroughs. As little as one-tenth of an inch of rain can trigger a CSO release. This happens about 75 times per year, say environmental groups.
CSO releases are technically a violation of the federal Clean Water Act. To remedy this, the City is in the midst of executing a three-part strategy to reduce the releases as required by a 2012 “Consent Order” it has entered into with the State.
First, the City has committed to spending $1.6 billion more on grey infrastructure, which would ultimately reduce CSO discharges by an estimated 8.4 billion gallons per year. Recent grey infrastructure projects completed by the City include upgrades to wastewater treatment facilities, storm sewer expansions and the construction of CSO retention tanks.
Second, the City has committed to installing green infrastructure, like green roofs, porous pavement and “bioswales” (large curbside plantings), that will absorb one inch of rainwater across 8,000 acres of the city. The 8,000 acres represents 10 percent of impervious surfaces, like streets and sidewalks, in all areas of the city with combined sewers.
The idea is to capture stormwater run-off before it reaches and overwhelms sewers, reducing CSO releases by another 1.5 billion gallons per year.
Finally, in the next three years, the City must produce plans for ten separate water bodies or “sewer sheds” – areas of the city where raw sewage is released into waterways.
Addressing the City’s “Sewer Sheds”
According to the City, the goal of each plan “is to identify appropriate CSO controls necessary to achieve waterbody-specific…standards, consistent with the Federal CSO Policy and the water quality goals of the Clean Water Act.”
Each sewer shed plan will contain some combination of green and grey infrastructure solutions. The State must sign off on each plan, as it is responsible for enforcing federal Clean Water regulations.
The City’s schedule for completion and submittal of its long-term CSO control plans runs through 2017:
Alley Creek- June, 2013
Westchester Creek- June, 2014
Hutchinson River- September, 2014
Flushing Creek- December, 2014
Bronx River- June, 2015
Gowanus Canal- June, 2015
Coney Island Creek- June, 2016
Jamaica Bay and Tributaries- June, 2016
Flushing Bay- June, 2017
Newtown Creek- June, 2017
The ten area plans will form the basis of a citywide CSO reduction plan to be completed by the end of 2017.
Advocates say that the goal is to find cost-effective ways to achieve the “highest attainable use” for each of the city’s water bodies. But the City does not appear to be in agreement with the State and environmental groups about what is actually attainable.
Struggling to Reach Agreement on Water Quality Standards
All sides agree that the City is making real progress on a number of fronts, including its construction of hundreds of green infrastructure projects throughout the five boroughs.
Nonetheless, the State Department of Environmental Conservation has rejected the first long-term plan submitted by the City, which covers Alley Creek in Queens. At issue is to what extent the City actually plans to clean up Alley Creek. The City aimed lower than what the State says is required by federal law.
The State and the City are now in litigation.
The long-term goal should be that all of New York City’s waterways are “fishable and swimmable,” argues the State. The new water quality standards released by the State this past December are a “big deal,” Larry Levine, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council’s water program, told NYER.
The NRDC is reviewing the draft standards now, as is the City. A recent article by Levine for the NRDC staff blog argues that New York City leads the U.S. in the category of “most untreated sewage discharged to waterways.”
The City is not taking the long term CSO reduction plans for each sewer shed seriously enough, says Levine. He maintains that the plans submitted thus far -for Alley Creek, Hutchinson River, Bronx River and Flushing Creek- do not include significant pollution reduction targets.
This jeopardizes the overall effort to support truly healthy local water bodies, say advocates.
“The first two parts of the  agreement [between the City and the State],” observed Levine, “are projected to reduce annual sewage overflows by about 12 billion gallons per year. That still leaves 18 billion gallons…that’s why the third part of the deal is so critical. The Long Term Control Plans are meant to close the gap.”
The City declined to comment on Mr. Levine’s article.
“The Issue Is Cost”
The City responds to its critics by arguing that it is doing everything it can with the financial resources at hand. Projects to improve harbor water quality are not funded by City tax dollars. Rather, the city’s water rate payers –building owners and ultimately their tenants- pick up the tab for new infrastructure.
The Department of Environmental Protection is responsible for developing and implementing the City’s CSO reduction plan. The agency oversees New York City’s water supply, sewage treatment and stormwater management systems. The DEP is also responsible for making sure that local waterways are in compliance with state and federal Clean Water regulations.
At a public meeting in December, DEP Commissioner Emily Lloyd stated that the agency was retiring about a half billion dollars in debt every year, and adding a “couple billion more” annually.
Current efforts to control sewage and stormwater releases –per the 2012 agreement with the State- will only add more debt, Lloyd said.
Questions About Public Participation
As part of its planning process, the DEP holds a public meeting each time it completes a CSO reduction plan and is preparing to submit it to the State. For instance, a public meeting to discuss the City’s CSO reduction plan for the Bronx River is scheduled for February.
Contrary to the step by step environmental review process that typically exists for development projects, legislative updates, etc., there is no formalized public oversight as the City develops its long-term CSO control plans. The DEP acknowledged at a public meeting in December that it does not share the plans with the public before they are submitted to the State for review.
Instead, a PowerPoint summary is presented at the meeting for each sewer shed. The public can ask questions at the meeting and submit comments in writing. Advocates say it is unclear what happens to these comments.
A November 17th letter to DEP Commissioner Emily Lloyd from the SWIM [Stormwater Infrastructure Matters] Coalition stated that, “we cannot emphasize strongly enough that it is impossible at this time for us or any member of the public to evaluate DEP’s proposal or its underlying analysis, as the public is merely provided a PowerPoint presentation.”
SWIM’s steering committee includes representatives from Riverkeeper, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Bronx River Alliance.
The letter, which was submitted in response to the Flushing Creek plan, said the City’s PowerPoint “was missing essential information” such as “CSO volume reductions and water quality improvements” that would result from the different options -grey and green- available to the City.
Why had the City gone with a disinfection strategy for addressing raw sewage releases, SWIM asked. “As presented, the DEP gave the public absolutely no information as to their green infrastructure plans for this watershed,” they added.
Before submittal to the State, the City “should publish -for public comment- the actual plans,” SWIM argued.
SWIM also maintained that in its presentations to the public, the City has not been clear about what the State mandated for each long term control plan. The City’s roles and responsibilities as required by the 2012 consent order should be transparent, said the Coalition.
The DEP declined to comment on the November 17th letter from SWIM.
Every year, more New Yorkers are returning to the waterways that surround our city. From kayaking in Jamaica Bay to swimming in the Hudson River, we are re-connecting with our coastal habitat of islands, rivers, creeks and bays.
This year, the City and State will continue to debate (or litigate) the fundamental implications of the Clean Water Act for New York City’s waterways. Environmental groups will be watching to see whether the City’s sewer shed plans will reflect any progress made in this conversation.
More information about the City’s efforts to control CSO releases and its Long Term Control Plan can be found here.
Written comments regarding the State’s updated water quality standards may be submitted on or before Monday, February 2nd.
The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation has just issued the following statement.
NEW YORK STATE DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH COMPLETES REVIEW OF HIGH-VOLUME HYDRAULIC FRACTURING
Acting DOH Commissioner Zucker Recommends Activity Should Not Move Forward in New York State
DEC Commissioner Martens Will Issue a Findings Statement Early Next Year to Prohibit High-Volume Hydraulic Fracturing
The state Department of Health has completed its public health review of high-volume hydraulic fracturing (HVHF) and Acting DOH Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker recommended that high-volume hydraulic fracturing should not move forward in New York State. Dr. Zucker announced his findings and recommendations today at a Cabinet Meeting in Albany.
“I have considered all of the data and find significant questions and risks to public health which as of yet are unanswered,” said Dr. Zucker. “I think it would be reckless to proceed in New York until more authoritative research is done. I asked myself, ‘would I let my family live in a community with fracking?’ The answer is no. I therefore cannot recommend anyone else’s family to live in such a community either.”
In 2012, Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) Commissioner Joe Martens asked the DOH Commissioner to conduct a review of the draft Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement for High-Volume Hydraulic Fracturing (SGEIS). Dr. Zucker’s report fulfills that request.
As a result of Dr. Zucker’s report, Commissioner Martens stated at the Cabinet Meeting today that he will issue a legally binding findings statement that will prohibit HVHF in New York State at this time.
“For the past six years, DEC has examined the significant environmental impacts that could result from high-volume hydraulic fracturing,” DEC Commissioner Joe Martens said. “DEC’s own review identified dozens of potential significant adverse impacts of HVHF. Further, with the exclusion of sensitive natural, cultural and historic resources and the increasing number of towns that have enacted bans and moratoria, the risks substantially outweigh any potential economic benefits of HVHF. Considering the research, public comments, relevant studies, Dr. Zucker’s report and the enormous record DEC has amassed on this issue, I have directed my staff to complete the final SGEIS. Once that is complete, I will prohibit high-volume hydraulic fracturing in New York State at this time.”
DEC will incorporate the findings of the public health review into the Final SGEIS, which will be released with a response to public comments early next year. A minimum of 10 days later, Commissioner Martens will issue the findings statement prohibiting HVHF. This action will conclude the State Environmental Quality Review Act process for HVHF.
DOH’s review found significant uncertainties about: the adverse health outcomes that may be associated with HVHF; the likelihood of occurrence of adverse health outcomes; and the adequacy of mitigation measures to protect public health. DOH’s report concludes that it will be years until science and research provide sufficient information to determine the level of risk HVHF poses to public health and whether those risks can be adequately mitigated. Given the red flags raised by current studies, absent conclusive studies that disprove health concerns, the report states the activity should not proceed in New York State.
In conducting its public health review, DOH reviewed and evaluated scientific literature, sought input from outside public health experts, engaged in field visits and discussions with health and environmental authorities in nearly all states where HVHF activity is taking place, and communicated with local, state, federal, international, academic, environmental and public health stakeholders. DOH’s review can be found at: http://www.health.ny.gov/.
At the Cabinet meeting, Governor Cuomo thanked the Commissioners and their respective departments for their work.
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.
Contrary to what some environmental advocates claim, state Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner, Joseph Martens, says he is not leaving the agency. An employee at the DEC, who is also a union representative, told NYER that employees had also heard rumors last week that Martens was stepping down.
A spokesman for the agency, Thomas Mailey, told NYER that he spoke with Commissioner Martens directly, and that Martens confirmed he is staying at the DEC. Martens has been commissioner since 2011.
The perceived threat of a leadership change at the DEC had heightened concerns about Governor Cuomo’s next steps regarding high volume hydraulic fracturing.
A statewide moratorium remains in place while the Department of Health continues to work on a study of the public health impacts of fracking. Governor Cuomo stated during his one gubernatorial debate that a decision on the practice would be made by the end of the year.
The DEC is the agency that would issue drilling permits if the state gives the go-ahead. It would also be responsible for monitoring fracking operations in order to protect public and environmental health. The agency has lost over 800 employees since 2008.
On Monday evening, the state Department of Environmental Conservation released draft permit conditions for a proposed underground liquid petroleum gas (LPG) facility adjacent to the western shore of Seneca Lake. The lake is a major tourist destination in the Finger Lakes region. It also serves as a source of drinking water for an estimated 100,000 area residents.
The DEC stressed that, “the release of these draft permit conditions in no way indicates that the project will ultimately be approved.” Nonetheless, the state review process for the project has reached a major milestone.
The facility would be situated within a 576-acre site in the town of Reading, Schuyler County. The site is about 2.5 miles north of the village of Watkins Glen. The state DEC noted that, “associated surface facilities would extend uphill to the west with compressors, brine ponds, and distribution operations along Route 14… and Route 14A.”
According to FingerLakes.com, “Seneca Lake, once part of the proud Seneca Nation, is among the most popular of the Finger Lakes due to the natural and scenic beauty of the lake as well as its many attractions…
The hills that surround Seneca Lake are dotted with vineyards that cover hundreds of well-tended, picturesque acres, and its beautiful waters draw sports enthusiasts from all over… Small towns and villages line the shores of Seneca Lake, including beautiful Geneva and the popular Watkins Glen.”
Gas in Underground “Caverns”
The storage facility would utilize existing underground caverns in the Syracuse Salt Formation. These caverns were originally excavated by U.S. Salt and other mining companies.
While the feds have jurisdiction over the methane gas storage portion of the project, the state DEC has final say over the storage of LPG, mostly propane and butane. Crestwood is also seeking permission to store about 88.2 million gallons of LPG in the caverns.
The Albany Times Union pointed out in a blog post Tuesday “that the caverns at Watkins Glen could provide key storage infrastructure should natural gas hydrofracking be allowed in the state.”
A spokesman for Crestwood, who asked not to be identified by name, said that he did not know how much space would exist between the methane storage and LPG storage areas within the salt formation.
According to Crestwood, the salt formation’s underground caverns are currently filled with salt brine. As propane is injected into the caverns, the brine is withdrawn and will be contained in lined holding ponds nearby.
The company says that “the caverns are impermeable, and have the structural strength of steel, meaning no fluid or gas can escape through the surrounding salt deposit.”
Moving Propane by Pipeline, Truck and Rail
The Crestwood facility would connect to the existing TEPPCO Liquid Petroleum Gas interstate pipeline. The facility would ship LPG by pipeline, by truck via Routes 14 and 14A, and by rail via the existing Norfolk & Southern Railroad.
As proposed, the project involves construction of a new rail and truck LPG transfer facility, which “would be capable of operation on a 24-hour basis, 365-days a year.”
Construction would also include “surface work consisting of truck and rail loading terminals, LPG storage tanks, offices and other distribution facilities, and storm water control structures.”
The proposed facility, which has been under review for five years, has become highly controversial in the Finger Lakes. The draft permit conditions were released by the DEC less than a week after Governor Cuomo’s re-election.
Organizations like Gas Free Seneca point to a risk analysis by Rob Mackenzie, MD, which found that, “under the proposal in question the likelihood of an LPG disaster of serious or extremely serious consequence within the county in the next twenty-five years is greater than 40 percent.”
Mackenzie’s analysis, which was apparently requested by the Schuyler County Legislature, pointed to the possibility of a truck or rail accident in which LPG was released into the surrounding environment.
The bigger risk, said Mackenzie, was a structural collapse or other problem within the caverns themselves. Between 1972 and 2012, “there have been 18 serious or extremely serious incidents in salt cavern storage facilities,” he said.
“Nine of the salt cavern incidents were accompanied by large fires and/or eight explosions. Six involved loss of life or serious injury. In eight cases evacuation of between 30 and 2000 residents was required,” reported MacKenzie. “The likelihood of a serious, very serious, or catastrophic incident [in the formations themselves] over twenty-five years is 35 percent,” he concluded. This was “unacceptable,” Mackenzie said.
Over twenty residents from surrounding counties were arrested for performing acts of civil disobedience related to the project on October 29th and November 3rd. Those arrested included a 90-year old woman who stated, “I am here because of water and the climate. They are being threatened, and they are connected.”
The Crestwood spokesman who responded to our questions said that propane had been safely stored in the Seneca Lake caverns for twenty years, from 1964 to 1984, without incident.
Solving a Distribution Problem
Proponents of the LPG facility, like the New York Propane Gas Association, say that Crestwood will be addressing a major liquid petroleum distribution problem for upstate New York and New England.
“New York simply does not have enough propane stored here to prevent price spikes and supply constraints,” Rick Cummings, incoming NYPGA president and president of Mulhern Gas in Hudson, told LP Gas in an interview.
“As a result, New York residents and businesses are paying 40 percent more for energy this winter,” Cummings stated. He argued that lack of storage capacity was making fuel prices higher than they would normally be.
“Households that rely on propane for heating will pay $377 more to stay safe and warm. That adds up to [an] $84 million cost burden on New Yorkers that could have been avoided if New York had more safe propane storage infrastructure like the Finger Lakes project.”
Local Wine Industry Raises Questions
Concerns about possible pollution of soil and water, and industrialization of the area, have led to pushback from many local breweries and wineries.
“What’s being proposed here is massive,” Lou Damiani, owner of Damiani Cellars, told NYER. He said that there were other locations, besides next to Seneca Lake, which would be more appropriate for propane storage. “If they really want to do this, dig a cavern away from the lake…this is cheap storage.”
Damiani said that it had taken “decades” to turn the Finger Lakes into a “world class” tourist destination and wine region. He said that many local growers were “frustrated” that Governor Cuomo and the DEC did not fully appreciate the risks posed by increasing gas and petroleum infrastructure in the area.
“You can’t have it both ways,” said Damiani, referring to the state’s interest in supporting the oil and gas industry, along with tourism and local wine and food production.
Crestwood’s spokesman told us that the concerns of local wineries -that gas and petroleum storage would impact wine and tourism activities- were unfounded.
He pointed to the fact that the local wine and tourism industries grew and flourished while propane storage was already taking place in the immediate area. A propane storage facility has been located across the road from Crestwood’s proposed facility for some time, he stated.
According to the New York Wine and Grape Foundation, there are 133 wineries and tasting rooms in the Finger Lakes. The specialties of Seneca Lake growers include sparkling wines, Riesling, Pinot Noir, and Ice Wine.
The Finger Lakes Wine Alliance, a membership organization, declined our request for comment.
This summer, however, a reported 60 vineyard owners wrote to Governor Cuomo asking that DEC reject the gas storage plan. Among the vineyards signing the letter were Heron Hill. In an earlier letter to the DEC, Heron Hill owner John Ingle noted, “agriculture and tourism are the lifeblood of our economy…And now as we are finally reaping the rewards that come with international respect, we come face-to-face with a threat to our way of life and our livelihood.”
“Noise, truck traffic, pollution, and an industrial landscape are not why people choose the Finger Lakes as a vacation destination,” Ingle wrote.
State Decision Imminent
The Times Union reports that lawmakers in Seneca and Ontario counties, which border Seneca Lake, have voted against the project. Schuyler County lawmakers have voted in favor, while the remaining lakeshore county, Yates, has filed a letter of concern.
The next step in the review process is an “Issues Conference” to be held on Thursday, February 12, 2015, in Horseheads, New York. The state DEC says that the purpose of the conference is “to define the scope of issues, if any, that require adjudication with regard to the [gas storage] application.”
Participation at the issues conference is limited to DEC staff, Crestwood, and members of the public who request “party status.” All requests for party status must be received by the DEC’s Office of Hearings and Mediation Services by 5:00 p.m. on Wednesday, December 10.
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.”
** After publishing this post, NYER did receive a response from the NYS Department of Health regarding their testing and treatment policies around cyanotoxins. Please see the update at the bottom.
Toledo, you’re in good company.
The same toxic algae that tainted the water for 400,000 Ohio residents earlier this month is on the rise in New York, too. Blue-green algae blooms have killed pets (at least one dog on Long Island, and possibly another in Essex County), sickened humans, and even clouded the waters of the iconic lakes in both Central and Prospect Parks.
Consuming or even coming into contact with these waters can cause serious health effects for people, pets, and wildlife. And because climate change is expected to make these blooms more frequent, the safety of water supplies throughout the state may be affected.
Tainted By Toxins
Blue-green algae is the common name for a category of algae-like organisms known as cyanobacteria, which occur naturally in freshwater. At low concentrations, they are both harmless and invisible.
But when nutrient levels in the water—particularly phosphorus and nitrogen—soar and combine with hot temperatures, cyanobacteria undergo a population explosion. These “blooms” turn waters shocking shades of pea green, and even more troublesome, can produce harmful toxins called microcystins.
Exposure may cause fever, headaches, muscle and joint pain, blisters, stomach cramps, diarrhea, vomiting, mouth ulcers, and allergic reactions.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, exposure to microcystins—through skin contact, consumption, or respiration—“may cause a wide range of symptoms in humans including fever, headaches, muscle and joint pain, blisters, stomach cramps, diarrhea, vomiting, mouth ulcers, and allergic reactions.”
“If you see it, avoid it,” advises the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, the state’s lead environmental agency. That goes for pets and livestock as well.
A Statewide Situation
Since 2009, New York has been building one of the most robust algae monitoring programs in the country, thanks to a five-year, $750,000 federal grant to the Department of Health. The DEC website maintains a running list of active cyanotoxin notices (and an archive of past blooms), and enables the general public to report their own findings.
According to the NYS DEC, since 2012 “Harmful Algal Blooms” have been found in more than 140 recreation areas, reservoirs, lakes, and ponds in all parts of the state; 34 counties have reported blooms this year alone.
Given the transient nature of the blooms and the DEC’s inability to test every single body of water regularly, it’s likely that many other blue-green algae blooms have come and gone undocumented.
When grant funding for this program runs out in 2016, will the DEC be able to continue monitoring for algal outbreaks? Peter Constantakes, spokesperson for the NYS DEC says yes. “We will continue to seek funding for monitoring and outreach, [and we will] continue to partner with SUNY Stony Brook and other state agencies to gather data.”
Is NYS Water Safe?
As the situation in Ohio has shown, toxic algal blooms can do more than just look gnarly: large eruptions can disrupt entire cities and pose a significant threat to drinking water supplies. This vulnerability is due in large part to the fact that there are no agreed upon methods to test or treat drinking water for mycrocystin toxins.
According to the EPA, “no federal regulatory guidelines for cyanobacteria or their toxins in drinking water or recreational waters exist at this time in the United States.” And even if you can find the toxins, removing them is complicated.
“Drinking water operators must know the growth patterns and species of cyanobacteria that dominates the bloom, the properties of the cyanotoxins… and the most effective treatment process,” the EPA notes. Applying the wrong treatment process at the wrong time could actually release more toxins into the water source.
So, could the situation in Toledo play out in New York State? The answers are murky.
Repeated attempts over the last week to contact the DEC and the NYS Department of Health with regard to reservoir sampling, water treatment, and algal risks have been unsuccessful. The Albany and Rensselaer County Departments of Health have been equally hushed.
Toxic blooms have been found in seven New York State drinking water reservoirs.
In general, it seems that reservoir testing for algal toxins happens on a case-by-case basis when blooms are observed. But without an official response from the DOH, one is left to wonder at the efficacy and safety of such an informal program.
**Please see below for an official response from the DOH.
Don’t Worry, NYC
By contrast, New York City is confident that algal blooms are not an issue. Adam Bosch, spokesperson for the NYC Department of Environmental Protection, assures New York City residents that there is no need to worry. “The answer is simple,” he states. “We just don’t have algae in New York City reservoirs.”
“NYC has a state-of-the-art watershed protection program that is targeted at preventing these kind of blooms,” Bosch continues. For the last 20 years, the DEP has worked to protect the forests and lands surrounding the reservoirs and rivers, replacing septic systems, developing a robust forestry program, and working with agricultural producers to reduce run-off.
NYC has a state-of-the-art watershed protection program that is targeted at preventing these kind of blooms.
“These healthy forests suck up all the extra nutrients and are so efficient that you don’t even find algal blooms in the headwaters,” Bosch said. Bill Wegner, staff scientist with Riverkeeper, confirms the DEP’s claims. “The water bodies have to be eutrophic, meaning nutrient-loaded [in order to have algae], and there are no eutrophic reservoirs that are part of the New York City water supply.”
And on the off chance that a bloom did develop? Weekly and monthly sampling of key points in the system means that New York City water is well-tested, some 550,000 times each year. And because the City’s water is pulled from a vast system of 19 reservoirs and three lakes, Bosch reassures that the DEP could switch one off easily without feeling an impact.
Behind the Blooms
Scientists point to a constellation of causes for the increase in blue-green algae blooms. Agricultural runoff (mostly fertilizer and manure), sediment erosion, flows from sewage treatment plants and septic tanks, and runoff from lawns all increase nutrient loads in our lakes and ponds.
And climate change is exacerbating the issue. The increased frequency of heavy rains and flash flooding are causing quick influxes of runoff into our water bodies, while higher summer temperatures create the ideal conditions for algal growth.
“Blooms are going to be longer and more intense,” says Hans Paerl, professor of marine and environmental sciences at the University of North Carolina. “It’s all part of the price we’re paying for climate change.”
Even when the blooms run out of fuel and die off, they can still cause trouble. As the algae sinks to the bottom, bacteria feasts on the decaying matter. This removes oxygen from the water, resulting in “dead zones” which cannot sustain any life.
The Bright Side
There is no doubt that toxic algae is a growing global concern. The EPA calls them a “major environmental problem in all 50 states” and a 2014 report by the National Wildlife Federation found that a majority of the states reporting blooms consider it a “serious” situation.
But, unlike many environmental issues, this is a problem with a relatively attainable solution. New York City’s protected watershed is a case in point.
Fixing the algal bloom explosion throughout New York State will require a significant reduction in the amount of phosphorous and nitrogen entering our water bodies. This means new guidelines for how farmers (and homeowners) apply fertilizer, better livestock management, and tighter control over sewage treatment plants (and combined sewage overflows).
Federal action will be needed, too. This past May, Senator Chuck Schumer urged the EPA to issue guidance and recommendations to local water treatment plants on how best to test for and treat these cyanotoxins. He also pressed the EPA to develop water quality criteria for cyanotoxin levels in ambient water so that states like New York can better identify contaminated lakes and implement programs that will improve water quality.
**An Update From the NYS Department of Health
After publishing this post, NYER did receive a response from the NYS Department of Health regarding their testing and treatment policies around cyanotoxins.
Currently, the DOH tests drinking water for cyanotoxins “on a case-by-case basis,” if there is a report from the DEC of a bloom in close proximity to water intake pipes. Factors that may impact this decision include “size and extent of the bloom relative to the drinking water intake, toxin levels in the bloom, depth of the drinking water intake, duration of the bloom, [and] treatment at the water system.”
Those water samples are analyzed through a partnership with SUNY ESF, and if toxins are found, the DOH will provide guidance to water treatment plant operators and issue a public notification. In general, the DOH feels that conventional drinking water treatment, “consisting of flocculation, coagulation, sedimentation and filtration” is effective at removing any harmful algal cells. However, if the toxins have dissolved into the water, as was the case in Toledo, “additional treatment consisting of activated carbon filtration and/or advanced oxidative processes may be needed. “
A spokesman from the DOH reiterates our earlier point that “there are currently no state or federal drinking water standards or guidance values for cyanotoxins.”
The DOH confirms that the blooms that occurred in the Basic and Tomhannock reservoirs last year did not have any impact on drinking water delivered to consumers. Basic Creek Reservoir is a “back-up source” and not a primary water supply, while the bloom in the Tomhannock was “very localized and away from the drinking water intake.”
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.
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.”
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.