TODAY'S PAPER
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OpinionEditorial

Safeguard DEC's mission

Water on the Long Island Sound.

Water on the Long Island Sound. Credit: File

Good move, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. You’ve named a capable person to head the state’s environmental agency. Basil Seggos is widely respected for his commitment and his abilities.

Now you also must fund the Department of Environmental Conservation properly so Seggos can do his job. If you want a legacy as a green governor, it’s time to do more.

Right now, the DEC has no chance to meet its full mission. Funding and personnel are about 25 percent lower than eight years ago. Inspections and enforcement actions are way down. Funding for the Environmental Protection Fund — which supports efforts to protect clean water, preserve farmland, and recycle — is more than $75 million off from its $255 million high in 2008-09. For nearly 20 years, the state hasn’t had an environmental bond act to help pay for things like cleaning up waterways, improving sewage treatment plants, and buying open space.

At the same time, Long Island and the state face increasing environmental threats — from nitrogen in our waters to pine beetles in our forests, from illegal dumping to sea level rise. These are urgent and longtime threats to health and public safety, and the DEC needs the resources to combat them. This must be a priority when crafting budgets. 

Seggos gets Long Island’s issues. His smartly drawn priorities, detailed in an interview, include:

  • Climate change — he should work toward developing a state climate action plan to improve our ability to withstand stronger storms and rising sea levels;
  • Water quality — he should continue to support the state/local effort to determine how much nitrogen is in our waters and set targets for reductions;
  • Wastewater treatment — he must work with Nassau County on an ocean outfall pipe AND a nitrogen removal system for the Bay Park plant;
  • The southern pine beetle — those who are fighting a valiant but losing battle need reinforcements; and
  • Fisheries — his plan to rebuild trust with the fishing industry must be balanced with the need to protect stocks.

The litany of Long Island problems is much longer. Last year, for example, the state said 185 local species were declining so quickly they required action within 10 years to save them. They include species with great financial and nutritive value, such as oysters, winter flounder, scallops and hard clams. The DEC said its lack of staffing and resources means little can be done.

Other issues include:

  • Sand mines must be more tightly regulated. They can threaten groundwater and shouldn’t end up as garbage dumps, like ones in Coram and Kings Park. State legislation is needed to eliminate exemption loopholes, engineering staff should oversee mines, and Long Island requires more than one inspector.
  • A system to track construction and demolition debris should be created by requiring vehicle logs that would detail loads and destinations, in the wake of the illegal dumping scandal in Islip.
  • Brookhaven’s landfill is slated to close in 10 years; developing a long-term solid waste management plan should begin now.
  • A plan to more tightly regulate pesticide use, including a ban on the most toxic pesticides, is long overdue.

There is a lack of staff to manage the 20,000 acres of DEC land on Long Island; as a result homeowners are illegally expanding backyards and building sheds and decks. There also should be more planned burns in the Pine Barrens to reduce the risk of severe wildfires that threaten homes and lives.
 
Taken together, the problems seem overwhelming. Seggos shows the passion and smarts required to attack them. But he also needs the tools.

That’s up to Cuomo and the State Legislature. Give the DEC the money it needs. Because if it falls short in its many battles, the cost we will pay will not be measured in dollars.

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