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Local environmental groups Wednesday accused Gov. Pataki of gutting state agencies to favor corporations "embarrassed" by pollution investigations and enforcement efforts.

"Our concern is that these cuts are political and not financial," said David Mahoney of Great Lakes United, as representatives of seven organizations protested state budget proposals.

"We are very concerned that this is just an across-the-board cut to help industry get away with what's been going on for years," he added at a news conference at a Delaware Avenue law firm.

The proposed Pataki budget plans to cut some staff from the Department of Environmental Conservation's undercover Bureau of Environmental Conservation Investigation. Besides losing some staff, investigative units would no longer report to Albany, but to regional directors.

"The proposed cuts read like a plan to protect polluters," said Diane Heminway, Western New York director for Citizens Environmental Coalition. "We knew that the governor intended to be 'friendlier to business,' but we are shocked that he would cut staff working on investigating serious environmental crimes."

A DEC spokesman disagreed.

"I do not see this as having any serious effect on our efforts," said Peter Buechi, the DEC's acting regional director in Buffalo. "We have a BECI unit covering Regions 8 and 9 working out of Dunkirk, and we always have had good cooperation."

Buechi said the state has three such units: one covers most of upstate; another reaches up the Hudson River and down to New York; and a third covers Long Island.

He said he did not know how personnel cuts might affect investigative operations: "I don't see how investigations will be affected. The reporting mechanism will be different, but there will still be undercover investigations."

Internal DEC memos provided recently to The Buffalo News back the groups' claims that the small investigative force, now independent of regional offices, might suffer: Three captains and two lieutenants would be cut from the 31-member staff.

Officials within the DEC, who asked not to be identified, said the cuts would affect cooperative investigations with federal Customs and other agencies.

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