New York Needs to Reinvent and Not Destroy Its Environmental Agency

The recent firing of New York State Department of Environmental Conservation's (DEC) chief, Pete Grannis, is both idiotic and unfortunate. With the constant reduction of staff in that state agency, it is unlikely that we will see much creative policymaking and management at the state level until a new governor is inaugurated in January. The new administration will face a major challenge at DEC. According to New York Times reporter Mireya Navarro, some agency stakeholders:

...are deeply worried by the shrinking resources of the department. Not counting the 209 jobs scheduled to be eliminated from the current level of about 3,100, the department has lost 595 employees over the last two and a half years.

Grannis, a capable and well regarded environmental professional, was fired because a memo he wrote about the impact of the cuts found its way into an Albany newspaper. New York's environmental agency is now consumed by chaos and confusion, which will breed mistrust and the type of bureaucratic hunkering down which can almost guarantee increased levels of regulatory rigidity. This is truly unfortunate. Environmental agencies need to make the transition from a rule and regulation dominated culture to a more dynamic and flexible approach, built around new thinking that integrates environmental protection with economic development. This is going to be a difficult but vital transition, since New York's economic revival depends on it taking place.

While many of the battles in environmental protection seem to be between those that take environmental protection seriously and those who do not, there is a struggle emerging that will seem more like inside baseball once it becomes clear. This will be the conflict between advocates of old line command and control regulation and those seeking to integrate environmental protection goals into the broader goals of sustainable economic development. Most of the progress we have made in cleaning the environment historically have come from a set of landmark laws that empowered a generation of attorneys, environmental scientists and environmental engineers to hold cities and corporations to strict environmental standards. The assumption was that the forces of economic development and the forces of environmental protection were in inherent conflict. Environmental protection didn't generate wealth, it cost money. In contrast, the sustainability perspective is that without a healthy and productive ecosystem, wealth is impossible; environmental protection is a prerequisite to wealth. We see this perspective clearly in Mayor Bloomberg's PlaNYC 2030 sustainability blueprint. To Mayor Bloomberg, healthy air, clean water and enhanced quality of life make New York City an effective competitor for business and people in the global economy. Environmental quality is an economic asset.

The conflict between the two perspectives, of course, is the time frame of their analyses. Many corporations can make short term profits and many municipalities can save short term expenditures by polluting rather than protecting the environment. In the long run, companies that do not waste resources such as water and energy save money on production. Companies that do not poison the environment will not end up paying the eventual cost of cleaning up the messes they've made. BP's oil explosion in the Gulf of Mexico and GE's PCB discharges in the Hudson are expensive, cautionary tales. However, for some companies and politicians, the long run is someone else's problem. They care about the next election cycle or the next quarterly corporate report. The current structure of environmental law and enforcement assumes that most corporate or municipal leaders are short-sighted, short term thinkers. Of course, many are, and we need to retain the power to throw the book at those short-sighted folks. However, a growing number have adopted the lessons of sustainability management and recognize the connection between environmental quality and economic growth.

Unfortunately, these sustainability-oriented managers are subjected to a set of detailed and often inflexible environmental rules, administered by environmental agencies that treat them like criminals instead of potential partners. Let me give two examples to illustrate the point. A New York state county working on reducing pollution discharges into a waterway proposed investing in "green infrastructure" - or planting and wetlands restoration as a way of reducing runoff of pollution from roads and lawns into the waterway. This county found that it could reduce much more pollution at a much lower cost through green infrastructure than if they invested in upgrading a water treatment plant. The federal and state governments, refused to allow this flexibility, and insisted on the less cost effective investment in grey infrastructure.

Another example of DEC's outmoded thinking requires New York City's Department of Environmental Protection to keep 72 staff in its Industrial Sewage Pretreatment Program despite the fact that the number of factories required to pre-treat their waste has declined significantly over the past several decades. New York State's Department of Environmental Conservation's relations with New York City's Department of Environmental Protection are too often characterized by rigid and formal exchanges. Sometimes permit conditions negotiated years ago are allowed to remain in place long after they have become outdated and outmoded. The past quarter century has seen New York City's transformation from an industrial to a post industrial city. Someone should mention that to the state's Department of Environmental Conservation.

Private firms such as Aveda, Pepsi, Wal-Mart and Proctor and Gamble have developed sustainability principles and metrics and are trying to transition their business models to incorporate resource conservation, waste reduction and environmental impact into their organizational cultures. Environmental agencies need to become flexible enough to distinguish companies and municipalities seeking flexibility to achieve environmental goals from those who are simply seeking a way around the rules. The next governor of New York will have the opportunity to reinvent the DEC and perhaps set an example for the rest of the country. About eight decades ago, that type of creativity proved politically beneficial for FDR and allowed him to move from Albany to the District of Columbia. (Am I being too obvious here?)