ALBANY, N.Y. — Cleaning up polluted land for redevelopment, improving access to public lands and increasing resiliency to extreme weather are among the Department of Environmental Conservation's priorities in the coming fiscal year, Commissioner Joe Martens told Senate and Assembly fiscal committees at a budget hearing Wednesday.
Notably absent from the agency's agenda was fracking, which has drawn sign-waving crowds of opponents and advocates to environmental budget hearings in the last few years.
Several lawmakers praised Martens for the decision last month to ban shale gas development using high-volume hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. When asked when the exhaustive environmental and health impact review would be finalized and released to the public, Martens said it would be early this year.
Sen. Thomas O'Mara, the new chairman of the Senate Environmental Conservation Committee, was critical of the fracking decision, which angered many of his Southern Tier constituents who had hoped to make money by leasing land for gas drilling. O'Mara asked what it will take to reopen the review in the future.
"I don't think it's going to be revisited in the near term, because the conclusion was that there were just far too many risks and we couldn't minimize them to protect public health and safety," Martens said. But he said various health studies are ongoing and technology is improving, which could lead to a decision to reconsider the ban at some point.
"My guess is that it will be reconsidered at some point in the future, but some significant new information would have to come to light, whether it's medical information or a breakthrough on how to treat flowback water," Martens said, referring to wastewater that comes out of a gas well after injecting millions of gallons of chemically treated water to crack shale and release trapped gas.
The state's brownfield cleanup program, which provides tax credits to clean up contaminated sites so they can attract new industry, has been under fire for several years, with critics saying cleanups have been disproportionately in wealthy areas with robust building markets that don't need tax incentives.
With the brownfields program set to expire at the end of 2015, Martens said Gov. Andrew Cuomo has proposed extending it for 10 years with reforms that would target incentives to sites in areas with high poverty or unemployment levels and sites that will be used for affordable housing.
To expand on Cuomo's initiatives to boost New York as a hunting and fishing destination, the DEC budget for the fiscal year that starts April 1 includes a new Habitat Conservation and Access Account funded by revenue from habitat stamps and a portion of lifetime license sales. The account will allow DEC to match federal funds to support 18 new DEC staff to manage and protect fish and wildlife habitat and related recreation, Martens said.
Martens said the budget recommends raising certain regulatory fees that haven't been raised since 2009 or longer, to allow the agency to maintain staffing levels and meet federal requirements.
Several lawmakers, as well as environmental groups, questioned whether the agency has sufficient staffing to enforce regulations and complete projects in a timely manner.
Joseph Stelling of Environmental Advocates said in prepared testimony that DEC has lost 865 employees since 2008, resulting in reduced air and water pollution testing and inspections and fewer enforcement actions.
O'Mara said the speed of decision-making has been an issue, most notably in the six-year-long environmental review of shale gas development, a five-year-old permit request for a Seneca Lake natural gas storage facility, and nearly four years to complete regulations for liquefied natural gas regulations that were adopted Wednesday.
"The more things get drawn out, the more they get politicized," O'Mara said.