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Green wake-up call
Budget cuts to environmental programs are putting ordinary citizens in danger

EVEN IN A blue state with a tradition of robust green policies, environmental agencies can find themselves struggling to get out of the red. Five years ago, only Virginia and Texas (hardly bastions of progressive policies) ranked below Massachusetts for environmental spending as a percentage of total state funds, according to a 2000 study by the Institute for Southern Studies, in North Carolina. And that was before difficult economic times forced the Bay State, under fiscally conservative governor Mitt Romney, to slash funding for everything from education and health care to the environment. As a result, the agencies that care for our water, air, parks, and open spaces are operating with bare-bones budgets. When money is tight, environmental concerns often drop low on the list of priorities.

Over the past four years, the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), which oversees programs such as drinking-water assessment and anti-pollution enforcement, and the Department of Conservation and Recreation (DCR), which maintains and protects state parks, beaches, and pools, got hit hardest. In these departments, budget cuts eliminated hundreds of staff members and decimated programs in agency offices and in the field, from Boston to the Berkshires.

In fact, the cuts are so severe that current and former DEP and DCR officials, along with several independent observers, worry that unless some money is restored, Massachusetts stands not only to lose its once-heralded reputation as a leader in environmentalism, but also to put ordinary citizens in danger.

"[T]hese budget and staffing cuts cannot be sustained without significantly increasing risks to the public health and the environment," reads a DEP budget-request memo, prepared last November in advance of the governor’s budget proposal, and made available to the Phoenix. The memo summarizes how the DEP has struggled to fulfill its mandate while losing 28 percent of its operating budget and almost 300 employees, or a quarter of its staff since 2002. It pleads for more money to "maintain a responsible level of service." Says one DEP official: "A lot of the proactive, forward-looking sort of work took a back seat to the more crucial, operational work."

There’s still reason for hope, but not without public support. Last week, the state Senate released its proposed budget for fiscal year (FY) 2006, calling for $182.8 million in environmental funds — for DEP, DCR, the Department of Fish and Game, the Department of Agricultural Resources, and the Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. That’s $11.8 million more than last year’s final appropriation. (It’s also $5.5 million more than the House’s FY ’06 version, and close to $10 million more than Romney’s.) It doesn’t come close to restoring the environmental money that’s been lost — the Environmental League of Massachusetts, an advocacy organization, calculates that after inflation, the state is spending $86 million less now than it did 15 years ago. But it’s certainly a step in the right direction.

There’s also a growing push toward public-private partnerships, which could be especially important for the park system. One of these, the Riverways initiative within the Department of Fish and Game, last year successfully rallied the support of local volunteers to monitor river quality and water protection statewide. But while environmentalists appreciate the money and support that these collaborations provide, they still emphasize the importance of a strong governmental role. After all, the state’s environmental health is one of its biggest investments.

With constituents and lobbyists pulling at them from all directions, legislators expect to duke out a budget compromise by July. Until then, it’s up to environmental advocates to convince citizens and politicians alike that Massachusetts can no longer afford to shortchange its natural assets.

SINCE THE early 1970s, when environmental protection emerged as a hot-button issue, Massachusetts has been at the forefront of green policymaking. Some of the nation’s first land-preservation, clean-air, and clean-water laws were established here, and these programs have for the most part been effective models for other states.

For example, the Commonwealth’s steps toward compliance with 1990’s federal Clean Air Act have succeeded in reducing the number of harmful air particles. The Agricultural Preservation Restriction Program — which helps prevent farms from being turned into housing developments or shopping centers — has saved hundreds of acres since it was established under Governor Michael Dukakis. In the 1990s, the DEP’s hazardous-waste-site-cleanup program won Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government award for innovation in government.

"Massachusetts has a proud tradition of innovative leadership on the environment ... and we’re all the better for it, as a commonwealth," says John DeVillars, who served as the state’s secretary of environmental affairs under Dukakis from 1989 to 1990, and as chief of New England’s Environmental Protection Agency under President Bill Clinton. Now, however, "we’re in jeopardy of going from being a leader to being an also-ran."

DeVillars is quick to point out that the problem is a lack of money, not a lack of commitment from those who staff environmental agencies. But the fact remains, "there are fewer environmental cops on the beat," he says. Today, as Massachusetts battles industrial emissions of greenhouse gases, rising mercury levels that poison local fish stocks, and sprawling development that eats up almost 40 acres of land per day, the state can’t manage with any fewer watchdogs.

Another former state environmental secretary, Susan Tierney, who served under Governor William Weld from 1991 to 1993, assesses the current situation even more bluntly. "I just think it’s embarrassing and shortsighted to have fallen so low," she says.

Here’s one example of that plunge. The hazardous-waste-site program that won accolades in the 1990s dealt not only with enforcement and compliance for already-identified sites, but also with the discovery of environmental contamination resulting from something as minor as a heating-oil leak in a homeowner’s back yard, or as massive as improper treatment of industrial materials. In tackling such sites proactively, the DEP went an extra step to protect Massachusetts citizens from dangerous toxins that can infiltrate our air and water.

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Issue Date: June 3 - 9, 2005
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