Report faults state environmental regulators

News and analysis by Dan Telvock, Investigative Post's environmental reporter

If you drove to work above the speed limit would you call the police to report that you were speeding?

What if all laws were enforced only through such self-reporting?

Sounds crazy, right?

In essence, this is largely how the Department of Environmental Conservation operates, especially after drastic staffing cuts that have limited the agency’s ability to enforce environmental laws, according to a new report from Environmental Advocates of New York.

The report is critical of the DEC’s recent track record on inspections and enforcement. The nonprofit’s report shows how environmental enforcement in New York is on the decline because of staffing cuts and that the state is becoming too reliant on self-reporting data from the industries it regulates.

“This arrangement places the onus on permit holders to voluntarily disclose violations, some of which can be costly to correct,” the report states.

To boost its case, the group cited two DEC regulatory failures, one of which is the Tonawanda Coke case.

“Until residents of Tonawanda began vociferously complaining about noxious odors and their concern about elevated cancer rates, DEC’s standard monitoring procedures failed to detect serious air-quality violations in a two-square mile area in which 50 factories abutted residential neighborhoods,” the report states.

“When DEC did began testing in earnest — after appealing to the EPA for monitoring equipment it could not afford on its own — they discovered elevated levels of formaldehyde and benzene, both known carcinogens.”

Some of the key points in the report are that from 2009 to 2012:

  • Pollution inspections declined 35 percent.
  • Formal enforcement violations dropped 24 percent.
  • Inspections of water pollution permit holders were down 74 percent. The consequence is most of the self-reporting monitoring reports are not verified.
  • Air permit inspectors cut stack pollution tests for emissions by 44 percent and documented 53 percent less permit violations.
  • DEC inspected only 3.5 percent of hazardous waste sites and generators. Permit violations declined 31 percent.

The DEC hasn’t had any staffing increases since 2007, the report states.

The divisions of Air and Water Quality have lost 235 positions, a 28 percent cut.

The Division of Environmental Enforcement lost 115 positions, a 21 percent cut.

The DEC’s response to the report is that the Environmental Advocates of New York distorted keys facts and omitted others. The DEC’s complete response is posted at the Democrat and Chronicle.

“This report distorts key facts, omits others, and outright ignores this administration’s strong environmental record,” DEC spokesman Peter Constantakes said in the statement. “It’s disappointing that even after DEC officials provided Environmental Advocates with correct data, they proceeded to publish inaccurate information.”

Investigative Post has reported on other instances where the DEC has failed to enforce regulations.

One recent example is at Covanta Niagara in Niagara Falls, where a DEC official noted in May that the waste-to-energy plant had begun construction on a new boiler and smoke stack without obtaining the necessary air permit. The public commenting period for the company’s project hadn’t even run its course yet. The DEC turned a blind eye to this violation until three local residents filed a complaint and the press took notice in late July. Less than two days later the DEC cited Covanta Niagara with a violation.

In November 2012, we reported on the lax enforcement of idling laws at the Peace Bridge plaza, which abuts neighborhoods with sky-high asthma rates. Since that report, the DEC has picked up inspections at the plaza, but with few tickets. We’ll follow up more on this shortly when we get the rest of the data from the DEC.

These local cases, and the other that the report cites out of Rensselaer County, point to problems inside the agency. The Environmental Advocates of New York has asked Gov. Andrew Cuomo to hire more DEC staff, return to the practice of issuing public reports of annual compliance and enforcement for all environmental permits and adding inspection results by region in the DEC’s weekly bulletin.

Those proposed solutions would go a long way in bringing more transparency to the DEC’s enforcement and inspection activities.