Property Rights Foundation of America®
Founded 1994

Environmental Justice in New York State
Statement to the DEC Environmental Justice Advisory Group
July 12, 2000
Albany, N.Y.

By
Carol W. LaGrasse
President
Property Rights Foundation of America, Inc.

Introduction:

This opportunity to comment on "Environmental Justice in New York State" would not be complete without the recognition of DEC's leadership to bring about environmental injustice.

I have traveled two hours in my old pickup for this opportunity to speak because this is the nearest hearing to my residence. I hope that the inconvenient locations of every hearing location with respect to rural residents of the state are not an indication of any deliberate attempt by the ironically named DEC Environmental Justice Program to violate its published intention of "fair and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin or income in the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies."

Response to Listed Comment Areas:

You ask, "What environmental impacts affect you and your community?"

The experience in the Adirondack North Country region is that DEC is deliberately pursuing policies of massive land acquisition that are eliminating the economic resource base and serving to accomplish the extreme environmentalists' aim of depopulating the area.

Thus, DEC is carrying out the supposedly worthwhile goal promoted by environmental interest groups of acquiring unlimited land for "Forever Wild" forest Preserve without any regard for balance, without any respect for the Environmental Quality Review Act to evaluate the social, cultural and economic impact of its policies.

The examples and results of this unjust environmental policy are manifold, but I will cite just one example of an action with adverse economic and cultural effect on the extreme North Country, where DEC just completed its most extreme land grab, that of the 139,000 acre Champion International tracts. Logging will be completely ended on 29,000 acres and greatly curtailed on the remaining 110,000 acres. This is an area where the State's own labor statistics show double digit unemployment for most of the year, the only such area of the state where county unemployment statistics are routinely at the double digit level.

For brevity, I'll cite only one other example of DEC environmental injustice: extreme wetlands designations, beyond the power of statute, in 1999 in Saratoga County. By exceeding its statutory powers and unjustly enlarging wetlands maps, DEC has foreclosed the use of the land of many young couples, small farmers and others. Three weeks ago, I telephoned one young couple for an update on their situation, and they told me that they had given up hope of using their land on which they'd spent their money in hopes of building their house and were just going to continue living in a small apartment.

• You Ask, "What is your experience in trying to get environmental justice addressed?"

The response by DEC in my ten years of full-time volunteer effort to bring the many, many issues of environmental injustice to their attention has been total indifference and every evasion and legal tactic possible to forestall my efforts toward environmental justice. DEC has tried to stop my statements at hearings; it has never taken any of my letters, press release releases, studies and reports of any length, or public hearing statements, to heart to implement any part whatsoever of any of them; and DEC has used the full arsenal of its lawyers to fight my lawsuits in search of environmental justice. Furthermore, DEC has never responded helpfully to the petitions and letters of citizens working on the same issues as me to achieve environmental justice.

• You ask, "What is your experience in trying to get information on environmental projects in your community."

Returning to the all-important issue of land acquisition, DEC has turned the idea of an open land acquisition process envisioned in the 1990 Environmental Bond Act law on its face. The Open Space Plan is vague and overly broad, so that the real plans are unknowable, and it keeps changing, against the expressed wishes of the local community. Addressing it is like trying deal with a foggy, moving target. People in the North Country have no way of finding accurate information about DEC's real plans for their area and, worse yet, in violation of the subsequent Environmental Trust Fund law and the 1996 Clean Water, Clean Air Bond Act, DEC does not respect the wishes of local people about acquiring land in their communities. DEC doesn't even post notices in each township and county about the precise land it intends to acquire.

One of DEC's most egregious violations is that the land acquisition plan is segmented, to use a term from the Environmental Quality Review law. The full plan is for the future is hidden from the communities which are affected; in each revised Open Space plan only pieces for a limited period of time are revealed, albeit large ones, but vaguely stated, and the next plan has still more land than the one before.

• You ask, "For example, are you able to get timely and complete information?"

No, DEC does not reveal its land acquisition plans until the final actions in each separate locality are at hand. Knowledge is power, and the local communities would try much harder to defeat the plans if the truth were known. On the other side of the coin, DEC's bureaucrats get even more power with more land under their belts. Furthermore, DEC has close ties to the wealthy environmental groups, which gain from the land acquisition. The world's wealthiest environmental organization, The Nature Conservancy, for instance, works closely with DEC on land acquisition.

To return to the topic of the wetlands re-mapping in Saratoga County, DEC keeps changing its schedule about when it will implement the maps, if at all, and even keeps changing the public announcements about which counties will be mapped next-presumably so that no one can get together to effectively help each other.

• You ask, "If not, how can information availability be improved?"

To make the process of DEC land acquisition less unjust, DEC should put all land acquisition in abeyance, and make land acquisition maps to the scale of tax maps for the next 100 years for each township and county, publish these maps and perform the complete SEQRA analysis for each map, on a township, county and region-wide basis, including public hearings in each township and county-wide. A SEQRA process that actually followed the statute and DEC's own regulations for social, cultural, and economic impact analysis, would most likely discover that the just alternative would not be additional land acquisition, but the decision to divest a substantial acreage of Forest Preserve lands.

For the wetlands mapping process, DEC should at a minimum, after abiding by the law to reduce the acreage of wetlands frivolously mapped, advise each property owner in writing of the precise restrictions that are being imposed on the particular parcel and the 100 ft-wide buffer zone all around the wetland. It should advise each property owner about the wetlands appeal board and arrange for the government to pay all bills for wetlands experts on behalf of the property owner. It should formally offer to pay each property owner for the value acquired by the wetlands encumbrance. In addition, DEC's information should be adequate to make it possible for local assessors to reduce assessments so that taxpayers will not have an elaborate documentary process to obtain reductions in assessments.

• You ask, "Do you have any recommendations on how DEC should address and prioritize existing environmental justice concerns?"

The first priority and principle should be that DEC itself should not perpetrate environmental injustice. People have the ability to establish parks by working together in their communities. They have the ability to participate in the DEC public hearing process in the location of potentially polluting industries. DEC is interested in these inputs. But DEC itself is perpetrating environmental injustice toward rural people and many others in this state on a grand scale, and DEC is has been intransigent in response to criticism about this.

To forcefully address environmental injustice perpetrated by DEC, my recommendation is that DEC should be subject to a Civilian Review Board or regional boards appointed by local elected officials from each county in the state or elected by the local residents in each region. This Civilian Review Board would have the power to hold hearings, report to the legislature and the governor, and to bring disciplinary procedures.

Such a Civilian Review Board would act on complaints about DEC abuses involving far more areas of concern that can be addressed in this short statement. One area of concern, for instance, would be DEC's obstruction of construction of certain gas storage facilities, while allowing the very same technology used by a competitor. Because the state doesn't have enough gas storage capacity, New York State consumers are paying additional billions of dollars for natural gas. This obstruction of gas storage facilities is ironic at a time of concern with the cost of next winter's heating fuel and the possibility of power blackouts.

• You ask, "Would you like to see 'environmental benefits' such as open space, environmental education and recreational opportunities in your community?"

As a former resident of College Point in New York City, I marvel at the billions invested in new sewage treatment plants while none of the fine swimming beaches along the north shore in the bays and along the East River have been restored. In the North Country, I marvel at the millions available for land acquisition when the three million acres of land already in the "Forever Wild" Forest Preserve are almost entirely inaccessible. To the elderly and the very young, to any but the most physically fit, the land is entirely inaccessible.

The forest itself, supposedly saved as an environmental measure, will ultimately blow or burn down. A giant blowdown hit one million acres in 1995, over 400,000 acres becoming a fantastic fire hazard to itself and the people, communities, and neighboring land, according to DEC's own study. But DEC allowed the environmental and human hazard to remain.

But this is where the money goes, supposedly for the environment and recreation.

Yet, in the middle of the five to six months of winter in the North Country, to get a little exercise by taking a walk, an ordinary person who can't snowshoe or ski has to risk life and limb on a narrow, icy, snowy road with snow banks on either side. Environmental justice would redirect these millions being misspent on land acquisition, and use the money for real environmental and recreational purposes, both in the city and in the rural countryside.

A very nice park could have been built in this section of Albany, and many, well-used senior citizen centers and recreational centers in both Albany and the North Country with the $24.9 million just spent in 1999 by DEC acquiring the Champion International lands in the North Country.

***

Please note: further information available upon request.

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