Commissioner Grannis was right to reject Gov's crippling cuts that risked NY's clean air, water

Alexander “Pete” Grannis, the former Commissioner of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation who was fired yesterday by Governor David Paterson, has been a friend of New York’s environment for more than 40 years.

As a long-time State Assemblyman from Manhattan’s East Side, Pete was a leader on such issues as anti-smoking legislation, motor vehicle pollution control, the original bottle deposit bill, hazardous waste and brownfields clean-up, New York’s environmental review law and, ironically, funding for environmental and open space programs across the state.

When he was named DEC Commissioner in 2007 by then-Governor Eliot Spitzer, Pete declared: “This is my dream job.”

At DEC, he brought in a talented team of deputies and assistants, including dedicated first-deputy Stu Gruskin, committed water quality protector Jim Tierney and Policy Office director, Anne Reynolds.

Although DEC faced budgetary challenges almost from the beginning of his tenure, Pete and his team managed to make progress on several key fronts.  Under his leadership, the Department helped create a landmark recycling program for electronics, invested in green jobs, and promoted smart growth in our communities.

Pete’s one soft spot was his role in advancing Governor Paterson’s proposal for industrial gas drilling across southern New York State.  This proposal, which would authorize the worrisome extraction technique called hydraulic fracturing (aka “fracking”) throughout the Marcellus Shale formation upstate in the Catskills, would jeopardize drinking water quality and threaten public health for more than 17 million people, including all of New York City. It would also create significant waste disposal issues, pollute the air, and permanently alter the rural landscape.

Over the years, DEC absorbed significant budget cuts, as did other parts of state government.  But Pete and his team, while recognizing that every agency had to make do with less, did not stand idly by as his Department faced round after round of disproportionate staff reductions.  After losing more than 600 people over the past year and a half and with DEC staffing levels at their lowest point in two decades, Pete objected to the most recent order to slash another 200 employees.

And he was right to do so. The state agency tasked with overseeing the environment doesn’t have the staff or money it needs to enforce basic clean water or clean air laws. In fact, it is already so dangerously understaffed that it does not have an employee who can process the paperwork necessary to receive federal grants that would help fund New York environmental projects – so the money is lost.

A memo from DEC to the Governor, which described the dire impacts the latest round of cuts would have on the functioning of the agency, was leaked to the Albany Times Union this week.   Secretary to the Governor, Larry Schwartz, then demanded Pete’s resignation.  “You can either do this in a cooperative fashion or a hostile fashion,” the Commissioner was told.  Pete asked to speak to the Governor directly.  But he was turned away.  Yesterday, after Pete refused a quick resignation, Schwartz shoved him out the door. The Commissioner can leave with his head held high and with public thanks for taking a stand on behalf of his beleaguered agency and for his years of devotion to protection of public health and conservation of the state’s natural resources. 

Unfortunately, his departure leaves the Department weakened and vulnerable to further attack from an unsympathetic Executive Chamber. 

And it places an even greater burden on New York’s next governor to meet the expectations of New Yorkers who rightly expect Albany to safeguard their water and air, to protect their open spaces and to preserve the state’s natural heritage for future generations.