Incoming Gov will need to revive a state environmental agency in crisis

Respected conservationists Peter Berle and Pete Grannis were undoubtedly linked to each other when they made the rounds in Albany in the spring of 2007, after then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer nominated Grannis to be commissioner of the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC).

Berle led the DEC under Gov. Hugh Carey from 1976-79, and he and Grannis had both held the same State Assembly seat for Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Grannis, like Berle, was a long-time friend to New York’s environment and had substantial support from the environmental community.

Now there’s a third link: both commissioners were fired from the state environmental department after stormy tenures. What’s different this time around is the state of affairs at DEC. The agency Grannis left behind is plagued by budget cuts and controversy over New York’s most pressing environmental issue today – proposed gas drilling upstate.

Here’s a bit of history. Berle, the son of an aide to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was an aggressive environmental advocate in the legislature and continued to fight those battles as head of DEC, a visible and expanding agency at the time. He took enforcement action against the Love Canal chemical dump site at Niagara Falls and sued General Electric for contaminating the Hudson River with PCBs. But the commissioner got caught in the cross-fire of the most contentious environmental issue in the Carey years – the proposed construction of Westway, a four-mile stretch of highway on Manhattan’s West Side.

The old highway was beginning to crumble after years of neglect, and the federal government promised the Koch administration extensive subsidies for the project. A broad, powerful coalition of developers, financial institutions, construction unions, political party apparatchiks, and even the Army Corps of Engineers supported the plan. An army of lobbyists descended on Albany to get the required approvals for the $2 billion highway segment, the most expensive project of its type in history.

Environmentalists fought back along a multitude of fronts, citing potential impacts on endangered species as well as probable clean air and clean water impacts. After Berle denied the developers necessary Clean Air Act permits, the Westway lobby went into high attack-mode. Carey fired Berle in 1979, with broad public ramifications. Berle moved on in his distinguished career, leading the National Audubon Society for decades.

Grannis, on the other hand, headed DEC until Gov. Paterson booted him out last month in the heat of record budget cuts inflicted on the agency. The reason? An unsigned, undated internal memo was leaked to the press, stating that in light of another round of job cuts, “DEC is in the weakest position that it has been since it was created 40 years ago...many of our programs are hanging by a thread. The public would be shocked to learn how thin we are.”

There’s no question that DEC has been disproportionately hit by cuts. Paterson’s latest round of job cuts proposes laying off another 209 people at the agency, which would bring the total loss to over 800 staff members since 2008. That means that more heads are rolling in New York’s environmental enforcement world than anywhere else in his administration.

Fewer staff, of course, means fewer enforcement actions – fewer petroleum spills cleaned up and fewer environmental reviews. Bob Sweeney, the Long Island Democrat who chairs the Assembly Environmental Conservation Committee, told the Albany Times-Union that the state is “unable to access federal funding for ourselves and not-for-profit agencies because DEC no longer has the people to do the paperwork. How dumb is that?"

So there’s not enough staff to inspect, investigate, analyze or even raise available money out there to keep the agency’s programs running. Grannis denies responsibility for the leak but has come out swinging to protest the evisceration his former agency. Like Berle, Grannis has another act coming – but DEC is in dire straits, possibly crippled. His departure leaves the agency weakened and vulnerable to further decline.

The incoming Cuomo administration needs to consider the agency’s crisis in the next budget round – and in its approach to the controversial hydrofracking. This disruptive industrialization of rural New York will require massive regulatory and enforcement resources, far beyond DEC’s current condition.