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Environmentalists say decline in pollution enforcement can harm New Yorkers' health

An environmental group says budget cuts at the state’s environmental agency has meant up to 75 percent fewer inspections of polluters like power plants and hazardous waste sites.

David Gahl, with Environmental Advocates, says years of budget cuts at the state Department of Environmental Conservation, known as the DEC, has led to a one-third reduction of staff, and an even greater decrease in the number of inspections of potential polluters.

“DEC is looking less and finding less,” Gahl said.

Gahl says his group’s report finds inspections of power plant sites and their smokestack emissions are down by 44 percent, and inspection of potential water pollution sites have plummeted by 74 percent. Perhaps as a result, enforcement actions against polluters is also down by 24 percent.

“We’ve got polluters and an industry that’s self reporting, and no one’s really looking over their shoulder,” Gahl said.

Gahl says the lack of action could be harmful to New Yorkers’ health.

Their report finds that in the western New York town of Tonawanda, residents had to resort to homemade air tests to prove that Tonawanda Coke was polluting the town’s air. Part of the plant’s land had already been classified as a Superfund site. The company was ultimately charged with 19 federal Clean Air Act violations.

It took the efforts of the group Riverkeeper, which advocates for clean water in the Hudson River, to convince the DEC to investigate sewage contamination from a discharge pipe maintained by the City of Troy and Rensselaer County Sewer districts.

In that case, says Gahl, the DEC decided against issuing any fines, though they could have slapped the city and county with a $500,000 penalty for the violations.

“The burden now is on the citizens groups and watchdog groups to highlight those kinds of problems,” Gahl said.

While the budget cuts began before Gov. Andrew Cuomo took office, the group says Cuomo has not done enough to fight for restored funding and more frequent inspections.

“Our message to the governor is that during the budget process this year, Gov. Cuomo needs to prioritize environmental enforcement and prioritize the agency,” Gahl said.

The Cuomo administration issued a sharply worded rebuttal, saying that the report on the inspections is flawed and “distorts key facts, omits others, and outright ignores this administration’s strong environmental record.”

DEC spokesman Peter Constantakes says all of the state’s hazardous waste facilities were inspected in 2012, and the decline in smokestack inspections was due to a change in the way the tests are conducted. He says there are fewer enforcement actions because industry is behaving better on its own.

Constantakes says DEC officials provided Environmental Advocates with correct data, but they “proceeded to publish inaccurate information.”  

A spokesman for Environmental Advocates responded – saying the group based its report on the information that the DEC reported to the federal government. Spokesman Travis Proulx says if the data is inaccurate, then it’s the Department of Environmental Conservation’s fault.

“If their data is faulty, it is the Cuomo administration’s responsibility to be step up and be more forthright with the public,” Proulx said.

There’s been talk of perhaps putting a new environmental bond act on the statewide ballot in 2014. Environmental Advocates’ Gahl was cool to the idea, saying “bond acts come and go.” He says New York needs a more permanent solution, and a deeper, more sustained commitment to environmental enforcement.

In the meantime, the group says they are reaching out to the federal EPA, to see if they will intervene.

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.