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More commen sense needed at DEC

Company XYZ, which competes with Company ABC but is located at the opposite end of the state, was involved in a similar remediation project. This time, the DEC’s local office decided that an environmental monitor was not warranted, allowing the company to avoid a $100,000 bill. Needless to say, Company ABC was not pleased.
This hypothetical scenario illustrates the kind of potential problems that have concerned us with the Environmental Monitors Program since we came into office on Jan. 1. It also illustrates the need for the kind of regulatory reform that will snap the DEC out of its bureaucratic lethargy and bring it in step with the real world.
Since Gov. George Pataki took office, much has been written and said about the DEC’s new approach to environmental protection. Unfortunately, some of the critics who would oppose any kind of changes for political reasons have gotten much of the media attention because they have shouted the loudest.
Let’s be clear. Gov. Pataki and DEC commissioner Michael Zagata are committed to environmental protection. Any suggestion to the contrary is simply fearmongering and just wrong.
But rather than continuing the hostile atmosphere that contributed to the difficult business climate in New York in recent years, the DEC today is committed to working with business.
Most businesspeople want to follow the law and keep New York’s environment healthy. It makes good business sense to avoid unnecessary and costly legal battles and mitigation measures.
But many businesses have a tough time with the mountain of regulations they must climb and as a result can get into trouble unwittingly. We want to help them to find the right track from the start, rather than wait for them to get lost in a regulatory maze and bring the full force of the law down on them.
To that end, we plan to institute a series of regulatory reforms that will cut needless red tape and improve our ability to work with businesses while still protecting and, in some cases, enhancing the environment. The Environmental Monitors Progam is one example where improvements are needed.
This program has existed for several years but has failed to realize its potential because it has been allowed to drift along without clear, consistent guidelines and responsibilities. As a result, the program too often does not help businesses, the public or even the DEC staff.
At its best, the DEC monitors work on-site with businesses to help them understand regulations, give quick response to issues that could delay major projects with unnecessary red tape and ensure that environmental standards are maintained.
For example, when a resident complained recently about odors coming from a nearby utility construction project, our on-site monitor accompanied a company representative to a meeting with that person. Afterward, the monitor walked the neighborhood to determine the extent of the problem and then helped the company find a solution.
As a result, the project moved forward without costly delays, while the neighborhood was protected by swift action to contain odors that were causing headaches and nausea. Imagine the days of discomfort the residents would have had to endure if they had to wait for someone to get out of the main office and into the field to solve that problem.
Unfortunately, that case is an all-too-rare example of how the program can work. More often, the businesses that pay for the monitors–as well as for their office space, vehicles, and technical and clerical support–are not getting their money’s worth. That means the DEC, the public and the environment also are getting shortchanged.
For too long, the program has been hampered by subjective decision-making and complaints about double standards. When they are assigned, the monitors have been slow to react to situations because they have not had the authority to make decisions in the field. In addition, monitors have remained on sites long after they were needed, running up costly and unnecessary bills for businesses.
No one wins in these cases, particularly since businesses inevitably pass on these avoidable expenses to their customers. To change that, the DEC will develop a clearer and fairer policy outlining when and why monitors are assigned to projects.
Protecting New York’s environment for future generations remains a top priority for Gov. Pataki and Commissioner Zagata. But we can achieve the same measure of protection with a more common-sense approach to how we deal with business. Making the Environmental Monitors Program–and the DEC generally–more efficient and consistent in its dealing with all New Yorkers is just one way to make that happen.
(Connie Barrella is senior deputy commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation.)


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