I have covered the demise of cod in the waters off New England, the accelerating melt of the Arctic Ocean and its impact on the northernmost city in North America, the health risks of fine particulate matter in the atmosphere, the trials of curbing lead poisoning while the federal government cuts funding, among many other stories.
Massachusetts lax on enforcing its environmental rules
Over the past decade, the state Department of Environmental Protection’s enforcement of air and water quality rules has fallen off sharply, as the agency’s workforce shrunk by nearly a third, according to a Globe review of state records.
Enforcement actions for serious violations have dropped by more than half, statistics show, as inspections also declined. Fines collected from violators plummeted during the same period by nearly 75 percent.
“We’ve been working very, very hard to keep a healthy level of inspections,” Martin Suuberg, the agency’s commissioner, said in a telephone interview. “But our numbers reflect that we’ve lost people.”
Reduced oversight at the DEP — historically one of the nation’s best funded and most progressive environmental agencies — comes as the Trump administration is considering major cuts to the federal EPA budget while transferring some responsibilities to the states. Governor Charlie Baker introduced legislation Wednesday to give the state oversight of pollution in Massachusetts’ waterways, now a federal responsibility.
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“This should be a wake-up call for Congress and the Trump administration,” said Ken Kimmell, who served as DEP commissioner during Governor Deval Patrick’s administration. “Cutting EPA’s budget will mean less environmental cops on the beat, and states are in no position to pick up the slack.”
During his tenure, staff reductions hindered a number of programs, Kimmell said. For example, the agency had to cut back on the labor-intensive work of testing rivers for the illegal dumping of sewage and fecal matter, he said.
“We just didn’t have the staffing to deal with it,” said Kimmell, now president of the Union of Concerned Scientists in Cambridge.
Matthew Beaton, the state’s energy and environmental affairs secretary, declined to answer questions. His office noted that the administration’s latest budget proposal calls for a 4 percent increase for the DEP, which would boost its budget to $53.7 million. Some of that money is earmarked to hire 15 new compliance officers.
The agency’s budget peaked in 2009 at $62.3 million.
In a statement, Beaton said, “The Baker-Polito administration was pleased to propose increased funding for MassDEP . . . to ensure that safe drinking water, clean air, and land protection remain top priorities.”
But over the past decade, the reductions have been stark.
■ Between 2006 and 2016, the number of agency employees devoted to enforcement, compliance, and environmental monitoring — everywhere from landfills to gas stations — has fallen by nearly 25 percent. At the same time, the number of annual inspections has fluctuated but generally declined.
■ Inspections have fallen more steeply since Baker took office in 2015. Since then, the agency has conducted about 5,800 annual inspections, more than 1,000 fewer than the median of the past decade.
■ In the same time, enforcement actions have also declined more significantly than in previous years. Since 2015, the agency engaged in 2,500 enforcement actions — also about 1,000 fewer than the median over the past decade.
‘The cause of the falloff is the depletion of staff.’
■ Fines from cases referred to the state attorney general’s office fell by more than half.
■ Last year, the agency issued just $1.8 million in penalties, the lowest total of the past decade.
Suuberg said the administration wasn’t purposely reducing its enforcement of environmental regulations, although Baker issued a controversial executive order in 2015 that required state agencies to ensure their regulations don’t exceed federal mandates, as many environmental directives do.
Suuberg said the order hasn’t changed the agency’s work. But environmental advocates have raised concerns, contending it could lead to the dismantling of the state’s strict regulations on water and air quality.
George Bachrach, president of the Environmental League of Massachusetts, said he didn’t think the reduced oversight is intentional, but was the inevitable result of chronic budget cuts.
“The cause of the falloff is the depletion of staff,” he said.
He said the agency’s job has become more challenging since 2008, when the state Legislature passed the Global Warming Solutions and Green Communities acts, which required new efforts to cut carbon emissions, increase energy efficiency, and promote renewable energy.
“DEP staff bravely soldiers on, saying they can do the same with less; but the truth is they can only do less with less,” Bachrach said. “As a result, we are not cleaning contaminated sites that could make way for new development and jobs. We’re not as aggressively monitoring pollution and protecting our rivers and open spaces.”
The reduced staff of compliance officers first emerged as a concern in the late 2000s, when DEP Commissioner Laurie Burt presided over the first round of significant layoffs.
Burt said she began to realize she didn’t have the staff or money to perform tasks such as monitoring storm-water runoff from agricultural areas, which can cause toxic algae blooms in surrounding rivers and lakes, and using helicopters to observe the encroachment of development on wetlands.
“It was very difficult not to have those resources,” she said.
By the time David Cash took over as commissioner in 2014, the agency had lost more than 400 employees from its peak of 1,173 employees in 2000. Today, there are about 655 employees.
Those cuts, he said, made it harder to conduct a range of inspections, particularly for a new, high-profile program to remove food scraps from the trash, an effort designed to lower municipal waste costs and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
“At the time, we already had inadequate staffing to adequately carry out inspections in our waste program, so inspections to assure compliance of the new organics program were not as robust as they should have been,” Cash said.
The agency’s challenges come as the Baker administration looks to expand its responsibilities.
The legislation Baker introduced Wednesday would allow the state to take over the so-called National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System.
The administration has already proposed adding $1.4 million to the agency’s budget to pay for a dozen employees to oversee the program, significantly fewer than environmental officials in the Patrick administration had estimated it would take.
Suuberg said the added responsibilities wouldn’t further compromise the agency’s oversight capacity.
“We’ll continue to focus our resources on high priority public health and environmental issues,” he said.