Protecting our environment is one of government's most fundamental responsibilities and New Yorkers have a right to know how well that obligation is being fulfilled. Unfortunately, Paul MacClennan's Sept. 3 column painted a distorted picture of Gov. Pataki's environmental record.
First, MacClennan incorrectly stated that the public has not received an accounting of spending for the $1.75 billion Clean Water/Clean Air Bond Act or the State Environmental Protection Fund. In fact, projects funded through the Bond Act have been subjected to public review and comment, and the state Department of Environmental Conservation issues annual reports to the public.
Bond Act funds are being used to clean up contaminated brownfields in Buffalo and Niagara Falls, improve Allegany and Woodlawn Beach State Parks, improve sewers in the Village of Blasdell and the Town of Hamburg to protect Lake Erie, preserve Motor Island in the Niagara River and the Sisters of St. Francis property in Amherst and remove coal-fired furnaces from Buffalo schools.
Western New York already has received $40 million in Bond Act funds, with more to be announced. These projects have been praised for their objective environmental value. Not even the governor's most political opponents have claimed that the Bond Act has been used for patronage.
MacClennan also erred when he wrote that the governor has turned aside efforts to make "hazardous substance" sites eligible for State Superfund cleanup monies. An advisory group appointed by Pataki to examine the Superfund program is considering how to address substance sites.
The claim that Pataki has done little to support cleanup of the Hudson River is inaccurate. After years of neglect and no funding, New York State has begun a comprehensive restoration program for the Hudson River. In three years, more than $75 million has been provided.
Determining whether to dredge PCBs from the Hudson River is a federal decision. Despite this, Pataki has twice written to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency demanding a timely decision. He also has initiated a Natural Resource Damages process that is assessing whether polluters should pay to restore the river's natural resources.
MacClennan also criticized state efforts to oversee the Kodak facility in Rochester without acknowledging that in the past year, Kodak has voluntarily agreed to upgrade its hazardous-waste incinerator and to fund additional DEC staff to regulate the company's environmental performance. At the same time, the DEC has initiated an enforcement action against Kodak for alleged violations.
MacClennan's gloomy appraisal of environmental policy is plainly contradicted by objective facts. Because of the Bond Act and a four-fold increase in funding for the EPF during Pataki's administration, New York State is making an unprecedented investment in environmental protection, providing funds for upgrading sewage-treatment plants, improving drinking-water systems, closing polluting landfills and protecting open space. In 1998-99, $400 million is available for these projects, compared to $31 million in 1993-94. And the DEC's operating budget has increased nearly 17 percent during Pataki's tenure.
Pataki also has shown national leadership on environmental issues. When President Clinton was wavering on more stringent air-quality standards, Pataki publicly called on him to stand firm, and he did so. When the federal government ignored Midwestern air pollution that fouls New York's air and causes acid rain, Pataki and state Attorney General Dennis Vacco went to court to end this injustice. When important environmental issues in New York were deadlocked in bitter debate, Pataki provided the leadership needed to produce solutions. As a result:
An agreement now protects the New York City watershed in the Catskills and Hudson Valley.
Work is under way to restore Onondaga Lake in Syracuse.
Fresh Kills, the world's largest unlined landfill on Staten Island, will be closed in 2001.
Bistate agreements protect Long Island Sound and Lake Champlain, and millions in state funds are being spent to reduce pollution.
Two of the state's most important open spaces, Whitney Park in the Adirondacks and Sterling Forest in Orange County, have been preserved, as have 3,700 acres in Long Island's environmentally sensitive Pine Barrens. New York is engaged in the most well-funded and intelligently planned program of land conservation in its history, and the success of that program is self-evident -- more than 65,000 acres have been protected in just three years.
In every measurable way, New York's environment is getting better. For example, the number of hazardous-waste site cleanups completed doubled from 1994 to 1998 and cost recoveries from polluters to pay for these cleanups has increased five-fold.
For years, state agencies were allowed to ignore environmental laws. Pataki put an end to that, requiring state agencies to correct their environmental problems and providing the funds to get the job done. In 1996 and 1997, more than $115 million was spent on compliance, reducing the number of serious environmental violations by 19 percent.
Despite this proud record, a great deal of work remains to be done. We are prepared for the challenge.
JOHN P. CAHILL is commissioner of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.