Under a Weak EPA, State Department Power Must Grow

Cuomo looks to Department of Environmental Conservation to Offset EPA

The EPA is at risk of becoming the weakest its ever been since its founding in 1972. In response, Governor Cuomo is looking to expand the power of New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation in order to preemptively act on the environment, regardless of what happens during the Trump Administration.

New York has used the EPA’s Superfund program to target its worst cases of pollution. There are 85 sites in New York that qualify as Superfund sites, and 3 in NYC. The Radium Chemical Company in Woodside, Queens is one site- it is currently the world’s largest known cache of Radium 226, a known causal agent of anemia and bone cancer. The Radium Chemical Company is 500 feet from a residential area, and Radium’s half-life is 1,600 years. So far in the EPA’s history, 32 of New York’s 85 Superfund sites have received remediation.

Many Superfund sites are still in the investigative process because identifying pollution sources is critical to making sure cleanup efforts are permanent. One critical component of the EPA is its enforcement wing, which fights pollution at its source by fining companies, organizations, and individuals responsible. Scott Pruitt’s confirmation as the new head of the EPA is problematic to the power of the enforcement wing, as he seems to be more interested in deregulating businesses than protecting public health.

Governor Cuomo is seeking to empower the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation as a hedge to the EPA. In the past, DEC has had to defer the worst environmental sites to the EPA. Increasing DEC’s power would allow it to act on the larger problem sites, as well as more sites simultaneously.

Currently, DEC has the power to remediate sites that have specific contaminants designated in Superfund regulations. If the EPA rolls those regulations back, the DEC will be unable to act.  Additionally, the level of contamination that demands a cleanup is not currently up to the DEC. Giving DEC authority to decide when to initiate a cleanup would reduce its dependence on other government structures. Working at solid waste sites that are affecting public health would be another role newly designated to DEC, as it is usually done on the municipal level. Another expansion of power is the permission to pay for water treatment systems, as protecting water quality is a central component of DEC’s expansion.

Overall, expanding DEC’s power creates a bigger role for agenda-setting, rather than just enforcing the agenda of the EPA. By expanding DEC’s power, New York enables it to preemptively act on water quality, air pollution, dumping, and endangered species regardless of decisions made in the Trump administration.