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Leaked Memo Depicts Bare-Bones Regulatory Environment for NY Gas Drilling

Memo from fired New York environmental chief says Paterson budget cuts would make it harder to clean up spills, respond to natural gas drilling in New York state.

The leaked memo that led to the dismissal of New York's top environmental official last week depicts a severely understaffed agency that has struggled to adequately perform its duties over the past two years and is ill-equipped to supervise natural gas drilling.

"All of the meat has been snipped free of the bones, and some of the bones have disappeared," wrote Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Pete Grannis in the memo. "Many of our programs are hanging by a thread."

The Albany Times Union reported on the internal memo last Tuesday. Grannis was dismissed by Gov. David Paterson two days later. In the aftermath, environmental groups are rallying behind Grannis, and gas drilling companies are calling for a better-financed DEC that can more effectively regulate drilling in the Marcellus Shale.

The memo, which responded to a request from the governor's budget division that the DEC cut 209 people from its staff by the end of the year, described an agency that is "in the weakest position it has been since it was created 40 years ago."

"The public would be shocked to learn how thin we are in many areas," Grannis wrote. "The risks to human health ... have already increased with respect to enforcement activities related to pollution sources. ... We are now responding to and cleaning up fewer petroleum spills."

Calls to the DEC were directed to the governor's office, where spokeswoman Jessica Bassett confirmed that Grannis had been terminated but declined to comment about how the DEC would be able to perform its duties with additional cuts.

"We had to make some difficult decisions," said Bassett. "All (budget) areas have been affected," not just environmental agencies, she said.

Environmental groups are calling for Grannis to be reinstated as commissioner, a position he had held since 2007.

"Pete Grannis has been a steadfast champion for decades, and was a dedicated public servant who truly understood all the environmental challenges facing New York State," reads a statement by the conservation group Audubon New York. "It's a shame that the Paterson administration's assault on the environment has claimed another strong advocate."

But Grannis and his agency have not always been hailed by environmental groups, which have criticized the state's oversight of gas development.

ProPublica launched an investigation into the hidden costs of gas drilling in 2008. A series of articles revealed that New York regulators were both unaware that the drilling technique known as hydrofracking would pump toxic chemicals underground and not sure how the state would dispose of the waste water produced in the process.

"As disappointed as we were with Grannis, the fact of the matter is that the DEC is our protector," said Ramsay Adams, executive director of the environmental group Catskill Mountainkeepers. "But if things were being regulated at a pitiful level before, what's going to happen now?"

According to the Grannis memo, the loss of 209 jobs would be a significant blow to the agency, which would be left with a total of 2,926 staffers if those cuts were implemented. The memo states that the DEC will have lost more than 20 percent of its workforce since April 2008 from attrition and recession-triggered downsizing. It lost another 800 jobs in the decade before former Gov. Eliot Spitzer was elected in 2006.

Grannis wrote that many of the agency's responsibilities would have to be delegated to the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which is preparing a report on the safety of hydraulic fracturing.

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