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Environmental advocates call for more DEC staffing

The Environmental Committee Chairs in the legislature have proposed a $5 billion environmental bond act, to be voted on in November 2014. But, at an Assembly hearing on the state’s environmental budget,  advocates say a bigger concern is dwindling staff at the Department of Environmental Conservation.Assembly Environmental Committee Chair Robert Sweeney is sponsoring a bill to create a $5 billion environmental bond act to promote clean water, clean air and to preserve public land.

The bill, which is also sponsored by the Senate’s Environmental Committee Chair, is in the early stages of discussion.

But at a hearing on the budget for the Cuomo Administration’s Department of Environmental Conservation, known as the DEC, advocates expressed more concerns over the 30% reductions in staffing over the past several years.

Paul Gallay, with Hudson Riverkeeper, says the agency, which has suffered budget cuts for over a decade, now has 3000 employees, compared to a high of 4200 in the early 2000’s.  And he says some essential tasks are not getting done, like the proper monitoring of water quality permits by industries that border New York’s lakes and rivers.

“We’re flying blind with regard to the bad actors,” Gallay said.

 Gallay says he worked for the DEC in the 1990’s, and he says even with full staffing, many worked overtime to keep up with the demands.

 “I call on you and I challenge you  to investigate what the impacts have been ,” Gallay told the Assemblymembers at the committee.

 Others praised the environmental agency for creating a pesticide registry, but lamented that there were not enough people to implement it.  

Adrienne Esposito, with Citizens Campaign for the Environment, is from the south shore of Long Island and lived through Superstorm Sandy last year. She says DEC employees were taken from their regular tasks and assigned to work on storm recovery, which she greatly appreciates. But she says in a time of climate change, it’s important to have enough people to respond to weather disasters without disrupting other important tasks.

“I feel like sometimes the environmental agency is looked upon as this luxury item,” Esposito said. “That we can cut to the bone or do away with in in hard times. And that is a falsehood.”

Esposito, speaking afterward, says she does back a bond act, but says it has to be done right, with a realistic number of workers to carry it out.

“We’re doing less with less,” she said. “We can’t substitute a marketing phrase for real meaningful change here in New York.”

Environmental Commissioner Joe Martens did not testify, he sent a deputy commissioner instead.   Assemblyman Sweeney devoted more questions to Deputy Commissioner Anne Reynolds on hydrofracking, than on the proposed bond act.

“Is there a time frame for some decision on fracking?”
 Sweeney asked.

Reynolds, answer, like those of her boss and others in the Cuomo Administration, was non committal.

“There isn’t a time frame at this point,” Reynolds said.

Reynolds says the agency is still working to answer 100,000 public comments submitted last January, and still waiting for Governor Cuomo’s Health Commissioner to finish a review that was begun nearly a year ago.

Esposito, with Citizens Campaign for the Environment, says while her group wants careful consideration of fracking, it’s taking attention away from other issues, like coping with climate change.

After this story was initially posted, DEC spokesman Peter Constantakes offered the following response:

"Like government and private organizations across the nation, the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) had to adjust to the impact of the major recession. However, we have maintained our level of commitment to protecting our air, land and water, and creating opportunities for people to enjoy New York’s abundant natural resources."

"Since taking office, Governor Cuomo has maintained agency staffing, enhanced funding for the EPF, and provided critical infrastructure funding, which support important environmental programs and projects."

"In addition, DEC is using technology to improve agency efficiencies, such as implementing e-licensing and web-based reporting, that benefit people and businesses by reducing antiquated and cumbersome paper-based requirements.  This has also allowed us to redirect staff to vital areas including storm recovery and flood mitigation."

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. WBFO listeners are accustomed to hearing DeWitt’s insightful coverage throughout the day, including expanded reports on Morning Edition.