Opinion

The Divide: DEC don’t weaken SEQR

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The Divide: DEC don’t weaken SEQR

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has proposed changing some of the State Environmental Quality Review (SEQR) regulations. They propose doing this “streamlining,” as they call it, at the same time the federal government is in an all-out effort to decimate forty years of environmental protections. The DEC should not be adding to the divide between protecting citizens from possible environmental harm and making it easier for developers to put profits ahead of the health of NYS residents.

The last thing the DEC should to be doing today is decreasing the number of Type I actions (these are the projects that are likely to have significant adverse impacts on the environment) and increasing the types of projects on the Type II action list (the actions that do not require the scrutiny an environmental impact statement (EIS) would entail). The proposed rule changes would contain only 11 categories for Type I actions, but would add 17 categories to the Type II actions, increasing the number of Type II categories to 54. As we sit here watching the federal administration roll-back environmental protections and deny the reality of climate change, we need the State to step up its environmental oversight, not diminish it.

One of the reasons, I think, for this SEQR “streamlining” proposal is that the DEC has lost many professional level positions over the past 20 years as the last few governors have cut and cut and cut the DEC’s budget.

The DEC no longer has the personnel necessary to investigate new development projects and assess their impact on the environment. So, instead of hiring the engineers and scientists that are necessary to carry out SEQR provisions, DEC is proposing to increase the number of actions that will be deemed Type II, thus eliminating even the need for an environmental assessment form (EAF) – this form is used by agencies to help them determine the environmental significance of an action.

Another reason given for the proposed weakening of SEQR by adding more categories to the Type II list, is that DEC wishes “to try and encourage environmentally compatible development.” (Final Scope: http://www.dec.ny.gov/docs/permits_ej_operations_pdf/617finalscope.pdf). This proposal could possibly be outside of the rulemaking authority of the DEC. The DEC’s role is not to use regulations for “incentivizing” development. The DEC, according to its own SEQR Handbook, is required to determine if there will be any significant adverse impacts by a proposed action, not be the determinant of whether a project’s benefits outweigh possible harm it could cause the environment. For a good discussion of this aspect and other issues of concern on the proposed SEQR changes, see Arthur J. Giacalone’s post in the March 5, 2017 “With All Due Respect” blog.

We have a perfect example of how a lack of considering an action as a Type I action by a local agency and/or the DEC can lead to adverse environmental and health impacts. A few years ago the DEC issued a negative declaration for Global Partners’ and Buckeye’s proposals to increase the amount of crude oil they could accept at their respective facilities adjacent to the Port. The DEC accepted the proposal that increasing the yearly amount of crude oil allowed to be taken into these facilities would have no adverse environmental impact. The DEC accepted this with no proof through the SEQR process that this would be true.

Then, to make matters worse, the DEC issued a negative declaration for Global’s proposal to construct a heating facility on its property to heat tar sands oil in railcars so as to facilitate the transloading of that filthy petroleum product. Since then, following an outcry from Ezra Prentice residents and a health survey showing a high rate of asthma in the community, the DEC has tried to take back its negative declaration. The DEC issued a letter to Global informing them of DEC’s intent to rescind the negative declaration. In addition, the DEC has told Global that their request should be treated as a “new” project under SEQR and a full environmental impact study must be undertaken. If only the DEC had followed its own guidelines and required SEQR be followed before issuing these approvals a lot of angst in Albany’s South End community could have been avoided.

So, the DEC, because it has problems imposing and enforcing its current regulations due to a lack of staff and/or because it desires to “incentivize” development has proposed “streamlining” SEQR regulations. These are not legitimate reasons for putting the health of the state’s residents at an increased risk from adverse environmental impacts. Throw in the federal government’s war on environmental protections, and the DEC should be doing just the opposite of weakening its oversight to strengthening its role in protecting New Yorkers.

In addition to decreasing environmental protections, should these proposed changes to SEQR be adopted, they will also reduce the public’s ability to participate in the decision making process. The more actions that are exempted from the environmental assessment form filing, the more proposals that will not be required to have public input. This seems to be contrary to the leadership of the state government clamoring for more ‘transparency’ in state operations.

In hopes of winning over “environmentalists,” the DEC threw them a chicken bone. In the dozens of pages of proposed SEQR changes, the “scoping” requirement is being made mandatory for all EIS (Scoping is a way to enlist public participation early in the process. Scoping helps to identify the issues of local significance that the environmental review will have to investigate and answer). Thus, in return for a lessening of actions requiring an environmental review, the DEC is proposing that the actions that do require an EIS will also have to undergo a scoping process.

The public comment period for voicing your concerns on the proposed changes to SEQR ends May 19, 2017. You can submit written comments to the NYS DEC, Division of Environmental Permits, Attn: James J. Eldred – Environmental Analyst, 625 Broadway, Albany, NY 12233-1750. You can also email your comments to: seqra617@dec.ny.gov

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