City Hall: City Suffers As Albany and DC Defund Landmark Environmental Laws

"Polluter pays" policies considered to make up budget shortfalls at environmental agencies

(December 16, 2009)

December 15, 2009

By Andrew Cotlov

State lawmakers have effectively defunded a landmark environmental protection law passed by Congress more than three decades ago after years of bloodletting and budget cutbacks, experts and advocates say.

Like most state agencies, the Department of Environmental Conservation has seen its budget slashed as a result of revenue shortfalls and shifting federal priorities. But unlike those agencies, the DEC is charged with enforcing federal regulations on everything from water quality to smog.

Now, New York has fallen decades behind in its effort to comply with those mandates, resulting in a vast array of health and environmental problems. Pockets of New York City, for example, have some of the highest asthma rates in the country.

"Any elected official worth his or her grain of salt, if they were not concerned about the budget impact and the negative effect it's going to have as far as the air pollution in our community—then they should not be in office," said Council Member Robert Jackson, who supports supplementing the lack of state funding with more money at the city level.

Over the last five years the DEC has suffered from a 25-percent reduction in its federal funding, a gap the state legislature has failed to fill. The agency has had to lay off dozens of inspectors and other officials charged with enforcing anti-pollution mandates, resulting in an increased workload across the board.

"The governor and state legislature has cut [DEC] funding down to the bone," said Allison Jenkins, the fiscal policy program director at the Environmental Advocates of New York, which has released two reports in the past month examining the cuts.

Environmental Advocates found that the state has met just 17 of the 30 mandates set forth by the groundbreaking 1970 Clean Air Act, and 30 counties across the state have failed to achieve minimal federal standards for smog reduction. Ten more counties have also failed to achieve the basic standards for reducing so-called "small particle pollution," or soot.

The result, Jenkins added, would be to defer the costs of compliance until taxpayers are forced to foot the bill.

"Taxpayers are picking up the burden of the cost of environmental protection because state resources are declining and federal resources are declining," she said. "If we dedicate resources to enforcing the laws we have now, it will be less expensive than it will be to clean up dangerous and toxic situations in the future."

Some experts have advocated a measure that would force polluters to pay for the costs of environmental compliance rather than the state, by taxing pollution at a higher rate and establishing a fee-per-mandate structure that charges polluters for failing to meet federal regulations.

"I certainly have no problem with the 'polluter pays' philosophy, and that might be something we'll take a look at," said Assembly Member Robert Sweeney, chair of the committee on environmental conservation. He cautioned, though, that even a new batch of increased taxes and fees might not be enough to fill the state's environmental funding gap.

When asked about potential increases to taxes and fees, a spokesperson for the Business Council of New York stated that they would not support any new taxes but declined to comment further.

In mid-December the Environmental Protection Agency determined that some ozone standards have been met in several upstate counties, but the agency also clarified that their ruling is not a re-designation of these areas under the Clean Air Act. It also did not make similar determinations on the air quality of the New York metro area.

"We're meeting our obligations even with this time of fiscal uncertainty," said Maureen Wren, a DEC spokeswoman said. "Some tasks relating to clean air regulations have taken a while to complete, but they are being completed in order to meet our final requirements."

The costs of those delays to the health and safety of New Yorkers, advocates warn, have already been too high.

"Ozone, when it's breathed into the lungs, actually is like getting a sunburn on the inner tissue of your lungs," said Mike Seliback of the American Lung Association. "Until we can really clean up that air, we're going to continue to see children being forced to go to hospitals to treat asthma attacks."