In 2011, an accidental sewage discharge from Amsterdam’s aged sewer system cost city taxpayers $5,700. Then, a Middleburgh chemical company was ordered to contribute $50,000 to the town and create a $500,000 escrow account to clean up groundwater contamination after a spill.
That same year, a church in Central Bridge was ordered to pay $2,950 after a heating oil tank leaked, and a town of Amsterdam firm faced more than $30,000 in fines for the illegal long-term storage of unlabeled, flammable chemicals.
Local governments and businesses would be able to avoid or minimize these types of fines under a policy being considered by the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
The DEC is accepting public comment on the new Environmental Incentive Policy, which would establish a self-audit process and give regulated entities a chance to report spills before they are discovered in periodic inspections.
The new policy is seen as a way to turn environmental stewardship — often forced on businesses after violations — into a partnership between the DEC and those it regulates.
“This policy will encourage companies to audit their operations and quickly return to compliance before an inspection is scheduled and fines are levied for violations,” DEC Commissioner Joe Martens said in a news release. It would also reward those who make a long-term commitment to go beyond standard compliance in an effort to save money and protect the environment, he said.
According to a draft of the policy, repeat violators wouldn’t be eligible. Violations that represent criminal activity or spills reported by others are among other exclusions in the proposal.
For those that do qualify, reporting a spill or other violation within 60 days and fixing the problem quickly would yield some financial relief when it comes to fines.
Fines are often levied to reflect the gravity of the situation the spill or other violation creates, and the DEC under the new policy would waive that component of the fines so long as action is taken to prevent a repeat occurrence.
The proposal takes a focus on the environment to another level by offering incentives to those who make a commitment to adopt pollution prevention programs or environmental management systems as part of their daily business.
These incentives include recognition on the DEC website of those that enact procedures that surpass standard environmental compliance. Other incentives include eligibility to get back up to half the cost of energy use reduction audit activities under the New York State Energy Research and Development Agency’s Flexible Technical Assistance Program, in addition to preferential treatment when it comes to other environmental assistance programs offered by other agencies.
Regulated entities, under the policy, would have to disclose the violation and DEC staff would be deal with the situation.
The draft policy is the product of meetings with a variety of groups, including environmental justice organizations, businesses, local government, farmers and others, according to the DEC.
Robert Moore, director of Albany-based Environmental Advocates of New York, a government watchdog, said Wednesday the group neither opposes nor supports the proposal but sees benefits in it.
“They’ve really put a lot of effort into it. We look forward to seeing how successful it is,” he said.
Those interested in providing public comment on the proposal can do so via email to OGCWEB@gw.dec.state.ny.us or mailing input to: Monica Kreshik, NYS DEC, Office of General Counsel, 625 Broadway, Albany, NY 12233-1500.