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February 1, 2007

The Journal News

Spitzer pushes environmental enforcement in his first budget
By Greg Clary

Gov. Eliot Spitzer's spending plans for the coming year include increased protection of New York's natural resources, requires consumers of non-carbonated drinks to pay a 5-cent bottle deposit and targets that money to pay for preserving open space and cleaning up pollution.

Many in the environmental community heaped praise on the first-term governor yesterday, saying he is continuing efforts to protect air and water quality as he did when he was the state's attorney general.

"The budget is where the rubber meets the road and we see a lot of things we like in the budget," said Laura Haight of the New York Public Interest Research Group. "We're delighted that Gov. Spitzer is following through on his long, long commitment to the environment."

The budget requires the approval of the state Legislature, but should it pass in its current form, consumers would start paying an extra nickel deposit as early as next January for non-carbonated drinks, such as iced tea and water, as they do now for soda and beer.

A spokesman for New Yorkers for Real Recycling Reform, which opposes the addition of non-carbonated drinks, said the cost to the average consumer is too great for what the organization said is a small portion of the waste stream.

"This amounts to a bottle tax," said Jon Pierce, the group's spokesman. "Our cost estimates show that a price of a beverage will rise by 15 cents per container."

One area of the budget that seems to generate little controversy is Spitzer's increase of 109 positions in the state Department of Environmental Conservation and another 57 to help take care of New York's parks.

The DEC has shrunk by nearly 20 percent in the last decade, with about 800 scientists and other experts leaving without being replaced in many cases.

Robert Moore, executive director of Environmental Advocates, said Spitzer's commitment to hire biologists, engineers and other experts across the agency should show significant dividends quickly.

"Nobody expected the administration to fill all those positions; we weren't advocating that all 800 positions be restored this year," Moore said. "We think this is a very appropriate first step in restoring the agency."

Moore cited a doubling of staffs that monitor water pollution and dam safety, as well as increase in lawyers who can go after polluters for damages beyond fines levied by the agency.

Pushing the state's Environmental Protection Fund to $250 million from $225 million this year and another $75 million next year using new bottle-bill revenue made environmentalists sit up and take notice.

It was some of the smaller, less high-profile items that resonated with advocates, depending on their bent.

"We're particularly pleased that there's $2 million for smart growth," said Marcia Bystryn, executive director of the New York League of Conservation Voters. "There's an extra $5 million to preserve farmland ... and $500,000 to open a New York City wholesale market for upstate locally grown food."

One area of the budget proposal that seems likely to draw more interest going forward is Spitzer's plan to charge nuclear plants across the state for military personnel and equipment put in place to bolster security.

Three sites cost the state $13 million a year, according to the governor's budget office and Indian Point's gets more than half of that help - $6.7 million.

Jim Steets, a spokesman for Entergy Nuclear Northeast, said it was too early to tell what the impact of the proposed action would be, or if the company would begin picking up the tab. The company is required to provide a security force to protect the plant that meets federal regulatory standards, Steets said, and the state's help is not included in that.

"We appreciate their help and work closely with them," Steets said of the state's military. "But we just don't know enough about this yet."

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