EPA Region 2: Environmental Commissioners Address Common Issues, Challenges

At first glance, members of the U.S. EPA’s Region 2 – New York, New Jersey, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands – seem like a set of strange bedfellows.  “It’s as if we have three regions in one: two states, the Caribbean islands and New York City,” said Judith A. Enck, Region 2’s administrator, at its recent biennial conference.

But after hearing environmental commissioners from four of the jurisdictions speak at the May 23 event, it became apparent that the region has many common issues, including dealing with significant budgetary constraints, harmonizing environmental protection with economic development, and responding to the continuing impact of the past year’s severe storms.

New York and New Jersey

Joe Martens, Commissioner of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), sounded all three themes in discussing the agency’s challenges following Tropical Storms Irene and Lee, and its efforts to identify cost-effective solutions for everything from infrastructure projects to the enforcement of environmental regulations.

Martens singled out two of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s recent initiatives, the New York Works Task Force and New York Open for Business, because of their particular relevance to these challenges. Both schemes aim to break down agency silos and assess needs broadly from regional and statewide perspectives.

The Works Task Force will be able to leverage resources and establish priorities for long-underfunded state infrastructure projects, addressing problems such as coastal erosion, dams, and hazardous waste that have become even more pressing in light of more severe weather patterns, Martens said. In line with the aims of New York Open for Business, the DEC is looking at ways to facilitate economic development while still fulfilling its responsibility for environmental protection, he said.

As examples, Martens pointed to an ongoing stakeholder process working toward reform of State Environmental Quality Reviews (SEQRs) and to the DEC’s current environmental self-audit policy. As part of the stakeholder process, Martens said the agency will reexamine the mandatory-scoping component of SEQRs along with the criteria for classifying projects as Type 1 versus Type 2 actions, a decision that governs the level of review proposed projects must undergo. The process will also attempt to establish “more meaningful time frames” for the SEQR process, Martens said.

The DEC’s self-audit policy provides small businesses with an opportunity to assess their own equipment and activities in order to determine whether they are subject to, and possibly in violation of, environmental regulation.  If the self-assessment determines that a violation exists, no penalty will be imposed, as long as the violator agrees to correct the problem and participate in ongoing self-audits, he said.  Martens called the approach a realistic solution to the otherwise enormous expense of extensive direct DEC oversight.

Bob Martin, Commissioner of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), reviewed both his agency’s accomplishments over the past two years and its key goals for the future, noting the impact of the 2011 storms as some of the many unanticipated events that make it hard “to keep moving an agenda forward.”

Included in Martin’s discussion of New Jersey’s successful strategies for improving air and water quality was the state’s new Site Remediation Program, fully phased in as of May 7. According to its terms, all remediations of contaminated sites, with limited exceptions, will proceed under the supervision of a Licensed Site Remediation Professional without specific DEP approval, although clean-ups must meet nine specific requirements.

The program, Martin said, recognizes that the state has lacked the resources to tackle remediation efforts at a scale commensurate with the size of the problem. With the help of the new system, New Jersey’s list of contaminated sites, which stood at 20,000 in 2010, has now been reduced to 15,000, he said.

Martin went on to enumerate some of his future goals, such as shifting to the assessment of environmental issues on a regional level rather than by “single lots and blocks;” addressing cumulative impacts of pollutants on environmental-justice communities; and finding long-term solutions to the challenge of funding New Jersey’s 800,000 acres worth of parks. He also noted New Jersey’s vanguard position in clean energy, including the development of offshore wind, a technology that is “central to the state’s environmental and economic future,” he said.

Puerto Rico

Pedro Nieves-Miranda, Chair of Puerto Rico’s Environmental Quality Board, continued the theme of challenges, which for Puerto Rico center on developing more clean-energy resources, preserving its excellent water quality, and improving solid-waste management and recycling on the island. But as the press of duties has grown, there is simultaneously a need to reduce deficits and cut agency workforces, said Nieves.

The challenge on the energy front is a particularly difficult one, according to Nieves. Puerto Rico has an aging fossil fuel-based energy supply that will make it difficult to meet new EPA requirements for ambient air quality and mercury emissions, he said.  He described efforts to implement natural-gas conversions and install better control equipment in fossil-fuel plants at the same time as the government works to meet its renewable portfolio standard goal of 12 percent by 2012. To satisfy the RPS, Puerto Rico has streamlined renewable-energy permitting and entered into power-provider agreements for around 35 projects.  Two of these — a wind farm and what will be the biggest solar installation in the Caribbean and South America — are nearly completed, and ten additional projects should be under construction before the end of this year, he said.

But even with all these steps, it will be hard to meet both the Commonwealth’s power needs and environmental regulations, he said.  The government formed a commission to evaluate additional options for increasing the availability of clean energy, with a report anticipated in June 2012, said Nieves.

Another challenge is presented by preserving water quality, so important for both Puerto Rico’s tourism and pharmaceutical plants, but threatened by insufficient sewage-treatment infrastructure and illegal discharges, Nieves said. In addition, the existence of many poorly designed solid-waste operations and of illegal dumping have intensified concerns about pollution, he said. To address the solid-waste problems, the government last year closed 20 out-of-compliance landfills, instituted a program to track and require recycling of discarded tires, and next will tackle the problem of proliferating recycling facilities, some of which are illegal and poorly managed, he said.

New York City

With its population of about eight million and its ambitious climate PlaNYC, New York City manages environmental challenges on a scale equivalent to those of the region’s states.  Carter Strickland, Commissioner of New York City’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), spoke about the principles that guide his department’s approach to the multitude of issues it handles.

Two interlocking strategies — risk management and adaptive management — are central to the DEP’s operational model, Strickland said. The risk management approach is borrowed from public health and involves careful prioritizing of needs, while adaptive management injects flexibility into the planning process, he said. The latter prescribes ongoing evaluation of programs that may prompt midstream adjustments, based on information about successes and failures along with new scientific findings. Together, these principles can help the department respond more nimbly than traditional regulatory models allow, said Strickland.

Outcomes in two of the areas informed by these approaches – protecting New York City’s drinking water supply and managing its aging stormwater system — have shown that a less traditional model can be both environmentally sound and cost-effective, he said.

In March, the state DEC and city DEP concluded a major agreement to develop green infrastructure as a means of addressing the water-quality problems in New York’s harbor that are caused by the city’s Combined Sewer Overflows(CSOs). The aging and now inadequate infrastructure releases surface run-off into the Hudson and East Rivers when overburdened by severe storms. Strategies like installing porous pavement, green roofs and swales — surface depressions to absorb stormwater — reduce demands on CSOs while carrying a far lower price tag than traditional engineering solutions, Strickland said. Such measures also have appeal for residents, whose property values and local amenities are enhanced by them, in contrast to engineering solutions like water treatment plants that have historically generated conflicts between neighborhoods and the city government, he said.

New York City’s upstate drinking water supply, too, has been protected by a preventative approach through measures like land acquisition to buffer the watershed and collaborative projects with farmers and towns to prevent damaging run-off of pollutants.  The approach provides a very successful environmental and economic model, with built-in flexibility that has allowed less costly but equally effective “soft” infrastructure to achieve results, he said. The proof of that success is seen in the U.S. EPA granting New York City a filtration avoidance determination from 1993 on, based on maintaining a high level of water quality.

Going forward, said Strickland, the DEP will focus on building-in sustainability by reducing its own energy usage and reconstructing wetlands and other natural systems to protect the city from anticipated sea-level rises.  It will also take advantage of a significant reduction in mandated spending levels – only 20 percent of the capital budget over the next ten years versus 70 percent previously is dedicated to predetermined projects — in order “to do what the population wants,” he said.  By that, he has in mind the addition of new technologies such as leak detectors and “smart” manhole covers that will result in cost savings and improved quality of life for city residents.

In response to audience questions about their relationship to EPA, the commissioners all seemed to agree that what they most want from the regional and the national office is the ability to work flexibly and to prioritize schemes that make sense locally, given the budgetary limits that they face in their particular jurisdictions.

“Stop counting widgets,” said New Jersey’s Martin, “and focus on outcomes.”

By Eleanor Saunders

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