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NYSDEC Commissioner Seggos on the Adirondacks, green energy, Dunn, Norlite, the Environmental Bond Act and the state budget

Basil Seggos
Pat Bradley
/
WAMC
New York state Commissioner of Environmental Conservation Basil Seggos

A major focus of both the Biden administration and New York Governor Kathy Hochul’s first budget plan is using green energy to spur the economy. This week, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Basil Seggos was in Plattsburgh to speak at the Quebec-New York Transportation-Aerospace Rendezvous. While there, he sat down with WAMC’s North Country Bureau Chief Pat Bradley for a wide-ranging interview:

The North Country, and particularly this section of the North Country around Plattsburgh, doing an extraordinary job in developing the economy the future, right. You talk about clean transportation and you think about Plattsburgh, frankly. You think about Nova Bus and Bombardier, I mean, producing clean technologies that will help us meet our climate targets statewide. It's very exciting to be up here. North Country Chamber of Commerce, and our friends from Quebec, and our business partners from around the around the U.S. all here to strike this, these relationships. So, our climate act is setting the stage, I believe, for an incredible amount of job growth in New York. We see with this transition to the clean economy of the future that for every job lost will be nine jobs gained. And that's going to be the creation of effectively hundreds of thousands of jobs across the state. So Plattsburgh, this part of the North Country, actually has a jump on that. They've seen for some time that they have an opportunity to use open space, right, and a trained workforce at the former airbase and start making some of these incredible technologies and putting those out all around the country. Shipping off buses, clean buses, to San Francisco or Houston and ultimately of course we hope into, all across New York. So they've got a jump. But we think that with the certainty that we will be providing with our climate law and ultimately the regulations and incentives, then other parts of the state will see this this opportunity as well, particularly Buffalo. We have a similar type of manufacturing history and lots of trained workers and a strong labor as well, strong labor presence that you'll see this incredible uptick in production of what we need to transition this economy from fossil fuels to renewables.

I understand too the state is encouraging more green school buses and the state is also transitioning its fleet of vehicles to go greener.

That's correct. I mean, Pat, this is a great opportunity for us as we address the climate crisis, right, reduce our emissions to build this new economy out. Governor Hochul has come out very strongly in support of electric school buses. And for me as a parent I put my kids on the bus this morning and it was a diesel bus. I think about it every day, right? Every one of us who has been on a green, on one of those old school buses you can taste those diesel fumes. It's bad for the kids. It’s bad for the driver, bad for the environment. So the governor wants to make sure we make that transition as aggressively as possible. Every new bus sold after 2027 will be electric. Every single bus by 2035 will be electric. That's going to be huge for our health, our economy, and ultimately will help us reduce those emissions from that transportation sector. So yes we're going big on that. We're going to go big on transitioning our own fleets, right, to practice what we preach. Make sure we have a green fleet here in New York state and that we providing EV’s for all of our workers across the state. So we intend to lead by example.

Now while Plattsburgh is working on transitioning to the green manufacturing, particularly at NOVA Bus, which is more the commuter bus type of manufacturing, where are we getting the green school buses and the green fleet? Do we have the manufacturing facilities within New York state to provide not only the green vehicles but the green jobs?

Right. Well we want those jobs here. Lyon Electric, smartly a couple of years ago pre-pandemic, opened up a new sort of a small sub-office if you will outside of Albany, I think recognizing that we were shifting already at that moment to the economy of the future. So they saw a market opportunity. I know they've got plans in the states to build out. I went to an event recently at the Capitol, right outside the capitol on the Empire State Plaza, where we had Bluebird also was present, Bluebird the big bus company nationally. They're beginning to make that shift to electric. And there was a manufacturer there, I forget the name of the manufacturer, but the manufacturer who based in New York would be retrofitting old buses. So pulling out the diesel engine, putting in a battery and a battery drive and ultimately having that that as an option. Because these buses typically last 10 years or more. I mean if you have a bus that you want to transition into electrical before that 10 years is up and you make that that retrofit. So we want to make sure that's happening in New York and ultimately attract those businesses here.

Unknown Speaker 4:40

Basil Seggos, I cannot chat with the Commissioner of Environmental Conservation without talking about the Adirondacks.

Oh, yes, I'd imagine.

Yes. The Adirondack Rail Trail is actually under construction. Some of the rail tracks have been removed. What's the status and the plans for the construction season that's coming up on that rail trail?

Great question. So very excited that we are where we are right now. We've finally seen the rails pulled up and we could begin to transition into construction of the trail. It's taken years to get to this point. Some of that litigation years. Some of it planning years, but we are here nonetheless. So we actually signed with the state Department of Transportation just last week transfer of jurisdiction. So the rail trail is now DEC’s for the making. We're working very well with the Office of General Services to build this out. Ultimately it will be opened in phases starting next year. But even in the meantime this will be a usable trail for hikers, walkers, runners, bikers, even electric bikes will be permitted ultimately and in the winter for snowmobile riders. So this work’s going to start with an aggressive timeline and ultimately, you know, give the North Country what they've been asking for for years, which is a robust trail from Lake Placid all the way to Tupper Lake.

How much of the rail trail can you actually finish in this construction season? Or is this still part of initial process here?

Well it's going to take several years to finish. We think probably about two to three full seasons to finish. But we'll finish it in segments so that parts of the trail will be usable. People who use it who are going to be on the trail are going to see construction. They're going to see surveyors out there. They're going to see folks working on some of the culverts that have been eroded over the years. We'll make it as usable as possible while we're doing construction. That's part of the I think the benefit of the approach that we're taking is that this will be a usable trail, by and large, up until the fact that we cut that ribbon in 2024 and ‘25.

Commissioner Seggos, speaking of trails that are not rail trails, one of the big issues over the last few years has been the high use of the High Peaks trails in the Adirondacks. What additional plans, if any, are in the works to relieve the, what some people say, is overuse of the High Peaks, particularly when we see the border reopening and now we'll have the Canadians coming back in? And during the pandemic we saw a lot of the more southern urban areas discover the Adirondacks. So what are you working on to try to relieve some of this massive use of the Adirondack hiking trails?

Well, we're so thrilled that New Yorkers have discovered the Adirondacks and Catskills. They are gems and the world is knowing that now and we are very excited to welcome back our Canadian friends. It does present a management challenge for us. As you know, we've been talking about this now for really since I became commissioner in 20, late 2015, the amount of use in the Adirondacks and our concerns surrounding that use. We want the business in the communities and we want the trails to be used in a sustainable way. And thankfully, I think we made some pretty good progress in the last year, the last two years, we worked hard on establishing a hiker reservation system, parking reservation system at the AMR (Adirondack Mountain Reserve) parking lot. That was very successful last year. Mind you our biggest concern there was one of safety where you had people parking on the sides of the roads and cars whipping through there at 50 miles an hour. It was not a safe situation. Last year was a great year one on that. We got I think something like 17,000 reservations in that system and most of those processed pretty well. People got back into the back country safely. We'll do that again this year. We just put an announcement about that last few days. We're also working on a variety of other use strategies. Pushing people to other areas of the High Peaks, right, encouraging folks to explore other parts of the Adirondacks. That has been somewhat successful and welcomed, frankly, by other parts of the Adirondacks. We have people seeing tourism really for the first time in a long time in some of these areas. We've put investments in parking lots at ORDA (Olympic Regional Development Authority), right, new trail heads on the ORDA facility Mt. Van Hoevenberg to get people up into the that part of the High Peaks. We've done extraordinary work with our state DOT to put painting on painting striping on our roads to make sure that folks know where to park. Ultimately we know we're going to have crowds this year. We're going to be ready for it. We're going to be talking very, very significantly with our local and state partners on that to ensure that we're ready to take the crush of visitors. And over time we're going to be making incredible investments in the trails themselves. Make sure those trails are the ones that are designed for 100 years, not the ones that are designed to take somebody right up the side of a mountain and ultimately those are the kinds of trails that erode very easily.

Well speaking of investments and money, what's your assessment of the state budget that is being worked on right now for the DEC and particularly for the Environmental Protection Fund?

It's an extraordinary budget. It truly is. I mean when the governor took office in in August, I believe, last year the second day her first meeting was with the EPA administrator. And she made it clear at that point that she was going to be a strong supporter of the environment, make it a top issue for her. And now you fast forward to her budget and State of the State she proposed a $4 billion bond act, a $400 million EPF (Environmental Protection Fund), mind you that was at $300 million last year. We have unprecedented money going into clean water as well, another $500 million going into clean water, another Superfund investment. So we have commitment for the environment unlike my agency has ever seen at this point. And we can start to think about not just keeping up with maintenance in some of these areas, but start to really think about generational investments in the environment. Things that we've been thinking about for years through the Bond Act. For example, if we have a four or five $6 billion bond act coming out of this budget negotiation that's a chance to make the New York truly climate resilient. When you start to think about the heat and the and the severe weather that's coming toward our state, you start to think about, you know, making our trail systems more sustainable, making our road systems more sustainable because all that runoff from the roads goes into ditches that then overflow into streams which damage communities during storms. So if we can run that water out the right way and make sure it's sort of climate friendly, in a way, then we're really making an investment in the future of this state.

Would you be looking at hiring more rangers and staff at the DEC?

Well, we did get a fairly significant bump in our fill levels. When I took over we were about 2,900 total at DEC. Mind you we were at over nearly 4,000 twelve years ago. So we took a real hit in the late 2000’s. The governor made it clear that she wants to rebuild staffing at DEC, giving us that 129 additional lines. We had also gotten the support from her to do a new academy, new Ranger Academy. We don't just hire Rangers, we have to go through a very, very significant vetting process and ultimately an academy which last six months. Very excited to have the biggest academy we've ever had for Rangers. We'll be kicking that off in May right up here in the Adirondacks. Again, first time in a long time we've had an academy in the Adirondacks. So we'll be building that force up very strategically starting this year with up to 40 new Rangers. And then I want to get an academy going as quickly as possible next year as well. And just recognize that we've had attrition, retirements. You know this is a valuable part of our workforce. We've seen attrition all across the board at DEC and really all the agencies have especially during COVID. But I want to build, I want to build the Rangers up because frankly right now we need them out in the field.

Basil Seggos, you mentioned the Environmental Bond Act. As you mentioned the Governor proposed $4 billion. We've heard estimates anywhere up to $6 billion, which is quite an amount. Are you planning to actively campaign for this once the amount is, you know, delineated and in concrete by the legislature? Obviously you're publicly supporting it.

Sure, well listen, I am prohibited from advocating for its passage, right? I can't tell a voter to go out and say thumbs up or thumbs down on a particular matter in front of them in November. What I can do and what we will be doing is educating the public about what a bond act is and what it can do to improve the lives of New Yorkers in terms of its landscape health, welfare, water quality, and so forth. So we'll have a very robust education campaign. And I'll leave it to some of the advocates out there who are already launching this these bond act passage campaigns.

Being down in Albany, so often you are probably familiar...

Too often.

You’ve got to come up to the Adirondacks more. You are probably familiar with a couple of controversies that the station has been covering. So I have a couple of questions with those. Should the permit for the Dunn Landfill be renewed?

Well we're thinking about that, obviously. The permit’s going to be submitted to us if it hasn't already, the application. We're going to give that a really hard look. This is now its fifth year in operation. I'm well aware of the controversies surrounding it. I've made clear publicly that some of the dust that has blown off that landfill into the community has been unacceptable and we've had staff there on a regular basis. So as we do with every permit we're going to give it a very hard look and assess whether or not it should be renewed.

What's your role in the renewal process?

Well, I would have a role only if it came to me in a hearing, right? Personally, right. My staff ultimately would be in charge of the renewal itself. And to the extent that it's approved or denied applicant or a party could appeal it and request a hearing. Ultimately the decision on an appeal of a hearing matter comes to the commissioner. So that would be my formal role. But, you know, I'm certainly aware that the application is coming and we'll be giving it a hard look. And I'll be asking questions of my staff as well.

Are you surprised at how controversial this has become?

No. I'm not. I get it. I understand it. It's a landfill in the middle of a community. And I understand the concerns that have been raised and I'm sympathetic to them. In the same token I want to make sure that our construction demolition debris goes to an appropriate landfill and isn't dumped, as we see downstate quite a bit, in sand pits or in fields and farms. We need to have a robust control, robust control of our construction demolition debris writ large. But, you know, I'll reserve judgment as to whether or not it belongs at this particular location.

Is Norlite in Cohoes abiding by the dust enforcement yet or does it still risk shut down in a few weeks?

Well they still risk shut down. We have a notice of violation against Norlite. We had issued one about a month ago and then another one in the last I believe two weeks was the last one we put out there. This is in regards to the dust blowing off of their fairly large dust piles into the community. And I have both received input from the community as well as corroborated with my own staff that the dust continues to be a problem in the area. So we're taking that very seriously. We're, you know as I made clear with my staff, we're going to ensure that, you know, we're looking at this problem as it as it evolves. Use the full force of the law, well aligned with the Attorney General's Office on this, they're representing us. And we're prepared to take any action necessary to stop this problem.

How does dust if it's blowing off a building violate a permit if, you know, the weather has something to do with it?

That's a good question. Until you see it you wouldn't believe it. It's actually dust blowing off of these massive piles. They're like small hills or mountains. It's black dust as a result of some of their process. So yes it is the wind typically that takes it. But we believe that there needs to be some controls on those piles to ensure that it's not a nuisance for the community or a risk or have some kind of a health hazard.

And then the last item was almost sent in jest, but I think it is something that people are concerned about. We're hearing about this big spider that's like the size of your hand, the Joro spider that has shown up in the southern states. Is the DEC worried about it or planning for a possible incursion of this big spider.

Are you asking about hunting seasons?

Is it that big?

Everything I've heard about the spider is that yes, it's big. It is no risk to humans. They don't typically bite humans. They might be fearful looking but they're brilliant little creatures. Unfortunately they hitched a ride here from Japan on some tanker or something. And the last bit, which I think is important, is the National Geographic folks who have been looking at this say that it's unlikely to migrate north. Even though these things typically migrate with their own sort of balloons they create out of out of silk they're unlikely to come north anytime soon.

Do you know why?

I don't know why but I'm glad to hear that. As a father of three young girls who spend a lot of time outside I'm not sure they want to see palm sized spiders anytime soon. But I find it to be an interesting story. But last year it was Murder Hornets. You know, it's just, you know, it's an interesting diversion from our daily lives to think about these things.

We have other invasives that we need to worry about.

That is exactly right.

Commissioner Basil Seggos, thank you.

Pat. Great to be back with you in person.

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