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Environmental advocates say better staffing more important than bond act

The leaders of the environmental committee in the New York state 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 budget hearing for the Cuomo administration’s Department of Environmental Conservation, known as the DEC, advocates expressed more concerns over the 30 percent 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 3,000 employees, compared to a high of 4,200 in the early 2000s. He also 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 1990s, and noted that 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 Assembly members on 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 hard times. That is a falsehood.”

Esposito, speaking afterward, says she does back a bond act, but says it has to be done correctly, 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.”

Like government and private organizations across the nation, the 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, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has maintained agency staffing, enhanced funding for the Environmental Protection Fund and provided critical infrastructure funding, which support important environmental programs and projects.

In addition, the 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.

Environmental Commissioner Joe Martens did not testify, he sent a deputy commissioner instead. 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 noncommittal.

“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 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 hydrofracking, it’s taking attention away from other issues, like coping with climate change.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.