– Watchdog Documents DEC Environmental Enforcement Woes

September 12, 2013

A new report from Environmental Advocates NY lifts the veil on how a series of budget cuts has hindered the Department of Environmental Conservation’s ability to enforce the federal Clean Water and Clean Air Acts, and other environmental protections.

For Immediate Release: September 12, 2013
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Watchdog Documents DEC Environmental Enforcement Woes

Albany—A new report from Environmental Advocates NY lifts the veil on how a series of budget cuts has hindered the Department of Environmental Conservation’s ability to enforce the federal Clean Water and Clean Air Acts, and other environmental protections.

Turning a Blind Eye to Illegal Pollution demonstrates how Governor Cuomo’s DEC has become increasingly reliant on polluter-produced self-monitoring reports to oversee their own compliance with environmental permit conditions. Staffing cuts at the agency have pulled environmental officers off the beat who check the veracity of self-reporters and correct environmentally harmful infractions, in addition to:

  • Cutting across-the-board pollution inspections by 35%
  • Slashing water pollution inspections by 74%
  • Reducing enforcement actions against polluters by 24%
  • Eliminating effluent tests for water pollution and chopping “stack” tests for climate-altering pollution by 44%

 “Governor Andrew Cuomo often speaks about the need to make state government work better. And in some instances, he has,” said Dave Gahl, interim executive director. “And while the Cuomo administration is not responsible for the deep DEC staff cuts of previous administrations, the Governor’s philosophy has been for his agency to do less with less, leaving it struggling to protect public health, safety, and our shared environment. Failure to address these issues will leave a black mark on the Governor’s green record.”

Andrew Postiglione, fiscal policy associate and the report’s author said, “Dismantling of the state’s regulatory presence coincides with significant cuts to DEC’s regulatory divisions, as well as the Cuomo Administration’s rollback of several clean water and air protections. Governor Cuomo should change course and make the enforcement of basic protections to our air, land and water a priority in the next fiscal year.”

New York’s History of Environmental Protection

Throughout its history, New York State has led the nation in enacting legislation and regulations that protect public health, safety, and the environment. From the creation of the Adirondack Park to passing an innovative acid rain law in the mid-1980s (under then-Governor Mario Cuomo) to passing legislation to control the spread of destructive invasive plants and animals, New York’s body of environmental protection is extensive. But little has been documented about the enforcement of these protections.

Environmental Advocates’ report documents how formal enforcement actions across three major areas of environmental law – the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, and Resource Conservation and Recovery Act – have decreased by nearly 25% between 2009 and 2012.

Clean Water: At DEC, the Division of Water carries out important water quality protection functions that include testing and monitoring the state’s water bodies, permitting discharges, and enforcing compliance with performance standards and operating conditions. However, between SFY 2007-08 and 2012-13 the Divisions of Air and Water Quality Management were cut by 28%, losing 235 full time positions. While this substantial cut alone has hampered DEC’s ability to keep proper tabs on its water discharge permit holders, in that same time frame their responsibilities have increased. DEC reports that the SPDES-permitted universe increased by 63% between 1999 and 2012, from 11,210 to 18,320 facilities.

Clean Air: 4.7 million New Yorkers live in counties receiving failing grades from the American Lung Association. Yet, the DEC’s Divisions of Air and Water Quality Management (which monitor pollutants like ozone and sulfur dioxide) have been hit hard by recent staff cuts, losing 235 positions, or 28% of their workforces, since SFY 2007-08 – leaving our health, safety, and environment at greater risk than four years ago.

Hazardous Waste: Inspecting facilities that generate hazardous waste is resource intensive. Despite this, DEC’s hazardous waste management programs lost 125 full time positions (18% of their employees) between SFY 2007-08 and SFY 2012-13. Despite conducting a paltry number of inspections to begin with, these reductions have further decreased DEC’s ability to put boots on the ground at these facilities. New York State data reported to EPA show across the board reductions in hazardous waste inspections, detected violations, and enforcement activities during this period of diminishing staff numbers.

Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment said, “This report clearly demonstrates that the campaign phrase ‘we will do more with less’ is simply wrong. We are doing less with less – less public health protection, less land protection, less air protection and less enforcement. Less DEC staff has resulted in more pollution and more people at risk. Less does not equal more, less equals less. We get more by funding more.”

Paul Gallay, president and Hudson Riverkeeper said, “We commend Environmental Advocates NY for shining a light on how the disproportionate cuts at DEC are threatening our environment, economy and quality of life. New York’s environmental agency has lost 30 percent of its staff since 1990 and is facing further cuts to its water quality programs among others. Until DEC receives the funding necessary to match its escalating responsibilities, political claims that we are balancing economic and environmental interests are just feel-good rhetoric.” 

Laura Haight, Senior Environmental Assoicate at NYPIRG said, “Environmental Advocates’ report tells a grim story – the agency charged with protecting our air and our water is so severely weakened by budget cuts and staff reductions that it is relying on polluters to blow the whistles on themselves.”

Governor Cuomo’s Next Steps

Environmental Advocates is urging Governor Cuomo to stop the dismantling environmental protections in the name of being “Open for Business”, and to right-size DEC staff to levels capable of adequately enforcing the state’s protections. Additional recommendations include:

  • Imposing harsher penalties on facilities who submit faulty, incomplete, or late self-reports.
  • Re-establishing inspection presence and on-site testing to verify self-reported data and lessen reliance on citizen detection of permit violations.
  • Releasing to the media all incidents of the local environment and public health being compromised.
  • Publicly releasing annual compliance and enforcement information for all environmental permits.