4. 1970 to 2000: The Environmental Machine
The DEC Empire
Since its birthday on Earth Day 1970, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has struggled to keep up with an ever-expanding list of duties. The DEC grew out of the Conservation Department, which managed natural resource areas such as water supply, hydropower, fish and game, parks, and forests. The new agency also assumed responsibility for the quality of the states air, water, and land. As the environmental movement expanded, the DEC expanded with it. In 1970 the agency employed 2,140 people. In 2000 it had 4,000 employees working in eighteen divisions in Albany, as well as in nine regional offices that divided up the state by counties.
The DEC has three main functions: natural resource management, environmental quality protection, and the promotion of public health, safety and recreation. Its divisions of Fish and Wildlife and Marine Resources are part of the historic "core" of the agency, with a broad mandate. They protect and manage fish, wildlife and marine species; issue hunting and fishing licenses; stock ponds and fields with fish and birds; conduct public education programs and hunter safety courses; protect and restore habitats; provide public boat launches; and provide access for fishing, hunting and trapping.
The other division with a long pedigree is Lands and Forests, which acquires and maintains land for public use; manages state forests and the Adirondack and Catskill forest preserves; promotes use of public and private forest resources; and educates people about forests. The relatively small Mineral Resources division regulates and monitors the drilling and production of oil, natural gas and solution salt; the underground storage of natural gas and liquefied petroleum gas; and the extraction of rocks and minerals, including reclamation of affected land.
Five DEC Divisions focus on maintaining and enhancing environmental quality. The Air Resources division regulates, permits and monitors sources of air pollution; forecasts ozone and stagnation events; educates the public about reducing air pollution; and researches atmospheric dynamics, pollution and emission sources.
The Environmental Remediation division cleans up inactive hazardous waste sites and abandoned industrial sites, also known as "brownfields." This division also builds wastewater treatment facilities; manages a Spill Prevention and Response Program; and regulates petroleum and chemical bulk storage facilities, underground storage tanks, and major oil storage facilities.
The Pollution Prevention division promotes environmental management strategies that avoid creating pollution at its source; provides technical assistance and outreach through conferences, workshops, clearinghouses and publications; coordinates DEC's integrated facility management program; and coordinates the State Agency Environmental Audit Program.
The Solid and Hazardous Materials division carries out regulatory programs for landfills and incinerators. It also manages the states policy toward pesticides and radioactive wastes. It encourages waste reduction, reuse and recycling, and it provides cancer researchers with a database on pesticide application and sales.
The Water division protects water quality in lakes, rivers, aquifers and coastal areas by regulating wastewater discharges, monitoring water bodies and controlling surface runoff; providing technical assistance and education; managing freshwater resources; and helping prevent flood damage and beach erosion.
The DEC also builds and manages a vast network of campgrounds, trails, and recreational facilities, including the Belleayre Mountain Ski Center in the Catskills. It operates environmental education centers and summer environmental camps, produces audiovisual programs, and publishes the New York State Conservationist magazine. Because the DEC issues permits to the industrial users of New Yorks water and air, it maintains its own court system and legal team, and is empowered to collect fines. It has its own police force, known as Environmental Conservation Officers (ECOs), who enforce environmental laws, as well as forest rangers, who fight fires; promote the safe use of the outdoors; license outdoor guides; and conduct search and rescue missions.
The DEC is the environmental emperor of the Empire State, and the dominant force in environmental affairs. But it has not always been at the forefront of change. Much of the DECs work was handed to it by laws passed in Washington DC. Many state laws administered by the DEC are made unnecessary by stricter local laws. Some DEC programs were created in response to short-term political pressure from citizens or business groups, not because of any long-term strategy.
New Yorks environmental affairs since 1970 are a complicated story. Elected officials, civil servants, citizen activists, and business associations fight to define problems and determine responses. Landowners, business owners, recreational users, and consumers accept or reject the results. It is an endless, complex process that unfolds simultaneously on three levels -- federal, state, and local. What follows are examples of how this process has worked in several of the most important environmental areas: solid waste, pesticides, toxic waste, clean water, clean air, wildlife, open space protection, and the Adirondack Park.