December 17, 2007
Change at DEC frustratingly slow
Like many other interest groups in New York state, environmental advocates were keenly optimistic that Gov. Eliot Spitzer would push new initiatives and complete tasks that his predecessor, George Pataki, had left undone.
"We entered this year with high expectations," said Laura Haight, senior environmental associate for New York Public Interest Research Group.
Some of those expectations have been met, said Haight and others who applauded as Spitzer assembled his environmental team, created a climate-change office and began restoring jobs at the Department of Environmental Conservation.
But environmentalists, like other groups, have faced disappointment as well. As the first-year governor's fortunes flagged amid political imbroglios and declining public approval, some of the green agenda was set aside.
Environmentalists are perturbed that Spitzer's DEC has not revamped regulations on hazardous waste cleanups that Pataki put into effect shortly before leaving office. Some also say that two major environmental bills died in the Legislature without enough hands-on lobbying by Spitzer.
"The differences now between the governor and the Legislature are very troubling. We were looking forward to the governor as an ally. This first legislative session has been a disappointment in that way," Haight said.
With budget constraints looming and Spitzer at odds with many state legislators, she said: "Nobody is looking forward to next session."
Other developments in 2007, though, were encouraging for environmentalists.
Under new DEC Commissioner Pete Grannis, the state is pressing forward with a program to limit greenhouse gas emissions and fund alternative energy projects. Agency leaders promise to step up environmental enforcement, which some say had lagged under Pataki.
Morale among DEC employees is reported to be high.
"I think the highlight of the Spitzer administration is the renewed enthusiasm of the DEC," said Adrienne Esposito, executive director of the Citizens Campaign for the Environment, which has offices across the state and in Connecticut. "The DEC has been diligently hiring for the positions that were lost in the Pataki administration. There's a lot of outreach on the part of the DEC leadership. All of that bodes well."
Global role model?
If Spitzer wanted to signal an intention to reinvigorate the DEC, environmentalists say, he couldn't have done better than making Judith Enck his Cabinet-level environmental adviser and putting Grannis in charge at the DEC. Grannis, a former assemblyman from Manhattan who worked for the DEC in the early 1970s, in turn made a number of popular appointments. "What you have now are visionaries who are looking at how we can get at some of the root problems, so I really am very excited about what happens next," Haight said.
Spitzer's first budget included a record allocation, $250 million, for the Environmental Protection Fund, which provides money for recycling, pollution control, acquisition of undeveloped land and other programs. The DEC also pledged to pay out grants from the fund faster.
The fund likely would provide money for a locally important initiative that the Pataki administration had back-shelved — state acquisition of land around Hemlock and Canadice, the last two undeveloped Finger Lakes. Officials from the DEC and the city of Rochester, which owns 7,100 acres around the pristine lakes, have begun appraisals of the land's value with an eye toward a state takeover.
The new administration also set aside $2 million from the fund to create a Pollution Prevention Institute, an academic center that would find ways for industry to use fewer toxic substances.
Environmentalists also were encouraged when the state budget included 109 more DEC employees. Seventeen were assigned to fish, wildlife and marine units, where Grannis said there are challenges related to invasive species. Fifteen slots went to water regulation, since the DEC had been criticized for falling far behind in reviewing pollution discharge permits.
Twelve positions went to a new climate-change office that Grannis said is bigger and better than all state programs except California's.
Grannis ranked action on climate change — in particular, progress on the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative — as the agency's most important accomplishment this year.
RGGI, for which Pataki started planning in 2003, is a collaboration of 10 Northeastern states — New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland.
Those states have agreed to cap and eventually reduce power plant emissions of carbon dioxide. Most of these emissions come from burning coal, and they are considered a major contributor to global warming.
Plant operators in each state would have to bid at an auction for "carbon allowances" — essentially government permission to emit a quantity of carbon dioxide. Allowances could be used or traded to others.
Money raised through the auction would pay for energy conservation and clean-energy programs, DEC officials said.
RGGI is intended to encourage efficient power plants and control pollution. It has been denounced by some as a new tax that plant operators would pass on to customers, but Grannis said state officials don't expect the auction process to increase what consumers pay.
Barring unforeseen impediments, New York intends to hold its first carbon-allowance auction in the summer of 2008.
"We are going to be the model, not only for the nation but maybe for the world," Grannis said.
Auto emissions, bottle bill
Following up on another stalled initiative of the Pataki era — tougher emission standards for vehicles — the Spitzer administration recently sued federal officials who had been blocking new rules.
Jason Babbie, an analyst for NYPIRG, said environmental groups had urged Pataki to create RGGI and were pleased that Spitzer is moving ahead with it.
"It's too hard to give an overall assessment with just 11 months. But there have been a couple key indicators that I'd say make us encouraged," Babbie said. He also praised Spitzer for setting new statewide energy-efficiency goals, though he criticized the lack of a new law on siting power plants.
The failure of the governor and legislative leaders to agree on new procedures for reviewing and approving power plants was a major disappointment for environmentalists. The old law expired in 2003.
Likewise, environmentalists say they were unhappy that the new administration had no more luck than the old one on expanding the state bottle bill. As attorney general, Spitzer had advocated broadening the deposit law to cover not just soda and beer containers but also bottles for noncarbonated beverages.
Spitzer introduced the bill this year, but it was blocked in the Legislature. Advocates say that while Grannis and other state officials promoted it and Spitzer may have pushed for it behind closed doors, the governor should have done more.
"It was his biggest environmental priority. But you didn't hear Governor Spitzer talking about the bottle bill in public," Haight said. "It was disappointing."
Grannis blamed the bill's failure on opposition in the state Senate and said Spitzer made it "a very high priority."
"Did the governor fall on his sword for the bottle bill? Probably not. But he was behind it 100 percent," Grannis said.
Prospects for next year are uncertain. As Haight noted, Spitzer's relations with state legislators soured as 2007 wore on.
Lax standards, less money
Yet another issue that disturbs environmental advocates is the failure of the new DEC leadership to reverse an action taken by their predecessors.
Two weeks before Pataki left office, the agency finalized regulations governing the brownfields cleanup program, which encourages reuse of contaminated industrial and commercial properties. Despite repeated complaints from environmentalists, the final regulations included soil cleanup standards that critics say are far too lax and not in accord with the law that created the program.
What's more, they assert, those standards also are being applied to cleanup at state Superfund sites, where contamination is worse.
The expectation was that Spitzer's DEC would move quickly to undo the regulations, but it hasn't.
"It was a huge disappointment. I can't see how DEC and the governor's office could justify not improving these standards," said Anne Rabe, a program coordinator of the Center for Health, Environment & Justice.
Four environmental groups filed suit in March to block the regulations.
The Spitzer administration did propose changes to the program, though its focus has been largely on the use of brownfields tax credits, which the administration said turned into a corporate giveaway program under Pataki. That bill did not pass in the Legislature.
Grannis said the DEC and governor's office will pursue revisions, including changes to the cleanup standards. But he said it will take time: "We're very mindful of that, but this is a big, complicated program that took years to get in place."
Asked about persistent complaints that the DEC is slow to deal with toxic dump sites, Grannis said the agency is "responding to public concerns as best we can with the resources we have. Cleaning up these sites has never been an easy task for any administration."
What DEC can do, he said, is go after parties responsible for the contamination. Under Pataki, he said, the agency had a "nonenforcement mentality. We have changed that. Enforcement is very much a priority now."
The Spitzer administration sent that signal after barely a month by announcing that it would sue ExxonMobil for failing to do an adequate cleanup of a huge oil spill in Brooklyn. During 2007, the agency has sent 56 cases to the Attorney General's Office for criminal or civil action, DEC spokesman Yancey Roy said. There were 52 such referrals last year and 31 the year before.
The DEC also reconstituted a criminal investigations unit that had been decentralized and scaled back under Pataki.
Asked if his DEC would be able to marshal more resources to clean up old dump sites, Grannis said no major new funding was on the horizon.
In the past, most notably in 1986, proceeds from voter-approved environmental bond sales have gone for cleanup work. Another environmental bond act could provide new funding, Grannis said, but "no decision has been made. I'm not even sure it's being actively considered."
Funding could become an issue in next year's state budget, due by April 1. Officials are warning of a multibillion-dollar revenue shortfall.
"I would be surprised to see (DEC) positions taken away, but I also would be surprised to see continued growth at that level," said NYPIRG's Haight. "The 109 (new positions) was a good start, but everybody knows the DEC is going to need a whole lot more than that."
Grannis was circumspect when asked about the 2008-09 budget cycle.
"We're pretty lean and mean in almost all of our core areas, but every state agency is being called to look carefully at the budget," he said. "I suspect we're not going to have the same success as we had last year."