NY Becoming a Passive Enforcer of Air Quality

Environmental Advocates of New York recently released a report Turning a Blind Eye to Illegal Pollution that, among other environmental permits, details how DEC’s monitoring of air permit holders has become more passive since the agency incurred substantial staffing and resource cuts- most notably, by losing 860 employees since 2008.

With fewer inspectors in the field to audit facility processes, DEC enforcement staff are becoming more reliant on industry supplied compliance reports. This leaves staff vulnerable to underreporting of emissions and the state vulnerable to undetected pollution like in Tonawanda where EPA investigators discovered a foundry coke and coal tar manufacturer to be emitting the carcinogen benzene at a level thirty times greater than that self-reported to DEC regulators.

Testing for this type of pollution is no small task, but DEC has reduced its use of standard “stack testing” to identify emissions at their source by 44% since 2009. In the case of Tonawanda, DEC had to appeal to EPA for the proper equipment, who themselves had to import the technology from Canada in order to accurately identify benzene emission levels. This shows the cat and mouse game that is evolving between environmental regulators and –not the industrial polluters, necessarily- but the chemicals they are emitting.

The more we learn about the risks these toxins pose when they escape from industrial processes and interact with the environment and our bodies the more important the interconnection between innovation and vigilance becomes.

This puts a premium on DEC’s ability to develop and utilize sophisticated testing methods while also ensuring industry compliance with best available technologies.  But DEC is not likely capable of modernizing its enforcement efforts in this manner while its staffing and resources are maintained at recession-levels.  

Ensuring the quality of the air, land and water we all depend on by managing the pollutants that are introduced into them is a basic function of government – but it is one which needs to be reaffirmed from time to time. Our report details how New York has slipped in recent years, it is now up to the Governor to prioritize a clean, healthy New York as he sets his spending plan for the coming budget year.

Author: Andrew Postiglione