ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — New York has reduced pollution inspections more than one-third over the past three years following large staffing cuts, according to a report issued Thursday by an environmental group.
Enforcement actions against polluters have dropped almost 25 percent from 2009 to 2012 under federal laws to protect air quality and waterways, Environmental Advocates of New York said. The state Department of Environmental Conservation has federal permit and enforcement authority over 33,000 factories, power generators, sewage treatment plants, hazardous waste sites and other emission sources.
The report, based on state data filed to the federal Environmental Protection Agency, shows the DEC's Divisions of Air and Water Quality Management lost 235 positions since 2007 or about 28 percent of that staff, part of a broader cut of 860 agency staff over the period. The damage from those cuts has started to show, with officials increasingly relying on self-reporting by polluters, said report author Andrew Castiglione.
"DEC ultimately is looking less and they're finding less," said David Gaul, Environmental Advocates interim executive director. Asked if there was less pollution to find, he cited two incidents from the report where citizens groups reported significant pollution problems before the state noticed.
The DEC did not immediately reply to requests for comment.
In western New York, residents near the Tonawanda Coke plant used homemade air tests with buckets and hand-held vacuums to show toxic emissions, the report said. Residents pushed for state and federal involvement that concluded with at least 14 pollution violations confirmed between 1998 and 2009.
On the Hudson River this year, Riverkeeper alerted the DEC to sewage outflows from the Rensselaer County Sewer District with bacteria counts hundreds of times higher than federal safety standards, according to the report. The agency contacted the operators, who repaired a blockage.
"Major facilities are consistently out of compliance with their permits, meaning they have either been flagged for polluting New York's waterways or their improper reporting is preventing DEC from knowing whether illegal pollution is being discharged," the report said. "DEC data reported to EPA show that an average of 76 percent of major facilities have been cited for violations between 2009 and 2012."
The agency's inspections of those facilities declined from 74 percent in 2009 to 16 percent in 2012, the report said. Its stack tests, measuring a specific air pollutant from a smokestack to determine actual emissions and permit compliance, declined by almost half.