Musical Chairs at the New York City Department of Environmental Protection

It seems like the City’s Department of Environmental Protection (“DEP”) just can’t catch a break this summer.

Two weeks ago, a fire roared through the main engine room of the Department’s massive North River Wastewater Treatment Plant -- shutting down the facility and leading to the discharge of several hundred million gallons of raw sewage into the Hudson River and to the closing of city beaches and Riverbank State Park on several of the hottest days of the year.

Then, yesterday, Cas Holloway, the Department’s hard-charging Commissioner was summoned back to City Hall to assume the post of Deputy Mayor for Operations.

Commissioner Holloway’s return to the City Hall inner-circle comes less than two years after he took the reins at DEP.  And while it is understandable that Mayor Michael Bloomberg would want this effective public servant to replace the departing Stephen Goldsmith, Holloway’s job-switch is a big loss for DEP.

In his relatively short time as Commissioner, Holloway has taken important steps to refocus and re-energize the city’s sprawling and at times disheveled environmental agency.

He clarified the Department’s core strategic functions and adopted a forward-looking strategic plan.  He invigorated existing staff and brought in new talent.  And he solidified his reputation for taking on tough challenges and getting things done.

Friends of DEP were hoping that Holloway’s tenure -- building on the efforts of his predecessors -- would provide the stability needed to finally get the Department operating at maximum efficiency and providing the vision and leadership to safeguard New York’s water, air and land for years to come.

But Holloway’s unexpected departure now leaves the Department looking for its 6th commissioner in a decade.  (Joel Miele, Chris Ward, Emily Lloyd and Steve Lawitts were his predecessors over the past ten years.) (In contrast, Ray Kelly, in his second run as Police Commissioner, has led that Department since 2002.)

Although not as visible as other city agencies, DEP performs essential functions, such as bringing clean drinking water to half the state’s population and treating more than a billion and a half gallons of wastewater every day.  The Department has nearly 6,000 employees, some in offices as far as 100 miles north of the city in the Catskill and Delaware watersheds.  And with 19 reservoirs, 14 sewage plants, numerous treatment and testing facilities and thousands of miles of aqueducts, pipes and mains, the Department has one of the largest capital construction programs of any locality in the nation.  For these and other reasons, the DEP Commissioner’s post is a challenging one.

Holloway has had the right attributes to perform this difficult job, including strong management and decision-making skills, a commitment to implement environmental sustainability goals, and the ear and the confidence of Mayor Bloomberg.

Still, when Holloway’s successor comes in, he or she will be facing major challenges.

For example, the next Commissioner will have to:

-- insure that State’s troubling plans for gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale don’t advance within the New York City watershed boundaries, don’t come within miles of the indispensible tunnels that carry water to our city, and don’t include disposing of fracking wastewaters anywhere within the watershed region;

-- move aggressively to implement cost-saving green infrastructure requirements (plantings, rain barrels, roof gardens, porous pavements), which capture stormwater runoff from both public and private developments to reduce raw sewage overflows into local waterways;

-- keep a close watch on the Department’s many capital projects, including the Croton Filtration Plant now under construction and the forthcoming Delaware Aqueduct bypass tunnel, while insuring that city water rates don’t again soar with double-digit increases; and

--complete the cultural change at DEP by bringing in young, committed staffers who are dedicated to public service and who embrace the Mayor’s sustainability agenda.

With less than 2 and ½ years left in the Mayor’s third term, it is hard to predict who will be tapped to take over the commissioner’s desk at the Department’s headquarters in Flushing, Queens.

Among the possibilities are David Bragdon, director of the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability and Long-Term Planning; David Yassky, the Mayor’s Taxi and Limousine Commissioner; and Jim Gennaro, chairman of the City Council’s Environmental Protection Committee.  All three are experienced and all three are friends of the city’s environment.  Other names will no doubt surface before a final selection is made.

Cas Holloway’s shoes will be hard to fill.  And the next person who becomes DEP Commissioner and chief environmental guardian for 8.2 million residents will be taking on one of the toughest jobs in New York City government.

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