Pataki's disappointing record on environmental issues; Could cost him some votes in WNY

By Paul MacClennan
Copyright 1998 Buffalo News
September 3, 1998

Gov. Pataki will go into the November election with the endorsement of the League of Conservation Voters, but not with the overwhelming support of the environmental community of Western New York -- and for a dozen good reasons.

To be fair, one must give the Pataki administration credit for seeking to reverse its bleak start in the first two years by proposing and gaining passage of the Clean Water/ Clean Air Act.

But other than the series of photo opportunities and ribbon cuttings around the state, citizens have few facts on how and where and for what purpose the money has been spent. Most of the early funding expenditures were at the governor's discretion, making them a real re-election and patronage machine. Nor do citizens get an annual accounting of the thousands spent from the Environmental Fund and the Return a Gift to Wildlife Fund.

Pataki's first and worst mistake was appointing Michael D. Zagata as state environmental commissioner, an after-the-fact appointment he left dangling until well into his first months in office. The commissioner quickly became an embarrassment, but before he dumped Zagata, many say his slash-and-burn tactics destroyed the Department of Environmental Conservation's institutional memory.

Although the governor talks a Great Lakes game, the failure to make appointments to the Great Lakes Advisory Commission has left that important group in limbo.

Environmentalists say appointments to the Adirondack Park Agency belie the governor's purported dedication to the Forest Preserve. And he removed a key member from Western New York on the state's Superfund Mangement Board, leaving the area underrepresented despite the fact that this region has the highest percentage of toxic-waste dumps in the state.

Despite repeated warnings from the Superfund Board during his tenure, the governor stalled on coming up with a plan for paying cleanup costs for some 200 toxic-dump sites for which there is no funding. Pataki has also consistently turned aside requests to include some 200 additional hazardous substance sites as part of the overall state Superfund plan routinely covered in the federal program.

Facing re-election pressure and bypassing the Superfund Board, he finally named a group of 15 to look into the matter, but strangely excluded any representatives of the environmental activist community or grass-roots representatives who live on the front lines of the toxic-dump war.

These are the ones who have campaigned on the issue proposing specific plans for refunding the Superfund and expanding it to include hazardous substance sites, many of which are in Western New York.

The governor's appointments again largely ignore Western New York. The group is asked to report comfortably after the election on Jan. 1.

Critics charge that the Pataki administration, particularly under Zagata's "business friendly" approach, has been lax on enforcement. Like past administrations, it has done little to rid the Hudson of PCBs dumped by General Electric. Nor has it endeared itself to Rochester area environmental groups that find little comfort in the DEC's lackluster efforts at curbing pollution at Kodak. Both companies are among the biggest polluters in New York.

Although there is a moratorium on logging in Allegany State Park, the governor's parks commissioner and chief logging proponent, Bernadette Castro, is now touting Pataki's environmental record of accomplishment. Neither he, nor she, is saying much about banning logging in all state parks.

And there is Beaver Island State Park, where fire destroyed a marvelous building that looked majestically out over the divide of the Niagara River into its east and west branches. Albany assured residents it would be rebuilt. Now Castro will lease the site out to the highest bidder, allowing privatization and diminution of a once proud public facility.

Pataki, who espouses concerns about acid rain, has ignored calls for an environmentally sound energy-deregulation program that would also encourage a start on efforts to curb global warming through sound energy conservation and reduction in consumption.

One finds it odd that Pataki ignores the fact that one of the last Republican governors, Nelson Rockefeller, really ushered into law the modern-day environmental record with the nation's first Pure Waters Bond Act and the creation of the DEC -- certainly a model for all succeeding governors. Rockefeller's legacy was far-reaching, yet ignored by this governor.

Troubling also is the league's rush to judgment, acting on an endorsement of Pataki before the primary to select a Democratic challenger and ignoring altogether the state's Green Party candidate. For a New York City-based group, it doesn't auger well as they seek to establish a beachhead in Western New York.
Strange things happen. First the greening of Pataki and now the greening of his mentor, Al D'Amato, who has also discovered that environmentalism is just as much a re-election kick-start as filling potholes. PAUL MACCLENNAN is the former environmental reporter for The News.

For writer guidelines for columns appearing in this space, send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to Opinion Pages Guidelines, The Buffalo News, P.O. Box 100, Buffalo, N.Y. 14240.

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