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Start rebuilding the NY State DEC

A boy and his grandfather spend Thursday afternoon

A boy and his grandfather spend Thursday afternoon clamming off the causeway in East Marion. (Sept. 5, 2013) Credit: Randee Daddona

Hard clams, oysters, bay scallops, winter flounder and blackfish -- each has great commercial, recreational and environmental value to Long Island. And each appears on a state list of 185 species whose declining populations likely will become unsustainable in 10 years without conservation intervention.

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, which issued the list, next must draw up action plans and implement them. But its available funding is about $2 million in annual federal grants. Environmentalists say at least 10 to 20 times that amount is needed.

The shortfall, alas, is not an isolated example. Budget cuts have so stripped the DEC that it long ago crossed the line from tightening its belt to being forced to do less with less.

The agency is charged with the vital task of protecting our natural resources. But its funding and staffing have been reduced significantly since 2007. Much of that came during the height of the recession under then-Gov. David A. Paterson, but the figures have yet to rebound. At the same time, the DEC's already-vast responsibilities have increased.

The result: fewer inspections of facilities like sewage treatment plants, fewer enforcement actions against polluters, a too-long process for issuing environmental permits which constrains business development and overreliance on facilities self-reporting emission levels.

The DEC has struggled, though it does a good job given its resources. But its resources are not sufficient.

That must be changed, and this is the year to do it.

New York is enjoying its first budget surplus in years. And Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has spoken eloquently about the importance of protecting the environment, including water quality on Long Island. Now he must translate that aspiration into more funding in the budget he will release this week.

The DEC's numbers tell the tale. Dollars are down 25 percent since 2007-08, according to State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli. Staffing has fallen 23 percent.

The litany of what's no longer being done is stunning. From 2009 to 2012, enforcement actions dropped 24 percent, inspections of water-pollution permit holders plunged by 74 percent, and hazardous waste regulators checked less than 4 percent of dry cleaners, auto repair shops and other such facilities, according to watchdog group Environmental Advocates. DiNapoli found the DEC did full Clean Air Act compliance reviews at 12 percent of utilities, chemical plants and the like in 2014; the average for all states was 35 percent.

As the state effort dwindles, so does the federal one. The Environmental Protection Agency's budget has been slashed by $2.2 billion since 2010 and staffing is its lowest since 1989.

The implications for Long Island -- with its sole-source aquifer, dwindling open space and many polluted sites and solid-waste facilities -- are serious.


Long Island's DEC office has only two environmental crime investigators -- down from four -- who, for example, check out reports of illegal dumping. It's worth noting that it was the DEC that brought evidence of such dumping in Islip Town to Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota, which led to the indictments last month of several individuals and companies.

And the DEC's mission continues to expand beyond such core responsibilities as managing wildlife, administering parkland, and issuing hunting and fishing licenses. Now it's developing plans to respond to climate change and sea level rise and evaluating problems posed by the transport of crude oil.

Also troubling have been cuts to the DEC's Environmental Protection Fund, a capital spending program that buys open space, preserves farmland and upgrades sewage treatment plants. After being slashed nearly in half from its high-water mark of $255 million in 2008-09, Cuomo has increased the fund to $168 million, but that's still far short of what is needed.

Bad economic times led to the cuts at the DEC. Now that times are better, it's time to make the agency whole. Our environment, quality of life and public health are too important to sell short.