By Jeanne Sager
SULLIVAN COUNTY February 2, 2007 A controversial presence since the floods, the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has once again raised the ire of Sullivan officials.
With the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) breathing down their necks, the state agents have been focusing their attentions on anyone with petroleum storage of 1,100 gallons or more.
That includes most of the townships in Sullivan County, and the result has been a load of fines on the municipalities.
The penalties as much as $8,000 for the Town of Liberty Highway Department have been meted out without a grace period to allow for corrective action.
No one’s questioning the violations, but county officials have cried foul to Assemblywoman Aileen Gunther.
These fines are going to a taxpayer-funded agency, but they’re coming from taxpayer-funded municipalities.
And supervisors like Frank DeMayo of Liberty and Harold Russell of Bethel said they’re concerned, not just as political advocates, but taxpayers.
“We are a tax entity,” said Russell, whose township was slapped with a $5,000 fine. “We run solely on residents tax dollars, and so do they.
“We pay the guy to come and fine us, and we pay to rectify it, and we pay the fine,” he continued.
“The fines get paid by tax dollars … why are we spending so many taxpayer dollars in so many avenues to accomplish the same thing time would have done?” he asked. “I have so many better ways to spend 5,000 of taxpayer dollars than write a check to the DEC.”
Time is the real issue for most officials they want to comply, but they’d like the chance to do so.
“If it’s an issue you want us to correct, tell us and we’ll correct it,” said Rockland Supervisor Pat Pomeroy.
Rockland Highway Superintendent Ted Hartling said he was handed a $1,500 fine from the DEC with the biggest expense coming from unregistered fuel tanks.
“But the tanks they fined us for this time were here last time, and they didn’t fine us,” Hartling said.
“Don’t tell us it’s fine one year and fine us the next,” Pomeroy noted.
Town of Callicoon Supervisor Gregg Semenetz said his highway department was caught in a kind of Catch 22 with its new town barn.
They’ve been using the fuel tanks at the old town barn until the tanks at the new town barn could be registered.
At the heart of the matter that earned his township a $4,000 fine was paperwork, Semenetz said.
When he went to New Paltz for a hearing, Semenetz said he was told they got off easy the DEC could have fined them as much as $35,000.
“They basically put you to the wall,” he said.
DeMayo got a similar warning. The Town of Liberty could have swallowed as much as $35,000 per day in fines.
But an $8,000 fine is a big hit for a township that’s suffered flood damage and just completed construction of a new town barn.
“It’s been difficult enough to keep our heads above water,” he said.
When Liberty Highway Superintendent Tim Pellam heard the DEC was making impromptu visits, he called Luzon Environmental.
He was trying to be proactive, DeMayo said.
Unfortunately, the DEC showed up the same day with five guys and a list of complaints.
“We were prepared to [come into compliance],” he said. “But we weren’t going to do it THAT day.
“But you can’t argue with them,” DeMayo said. “There’s nothing you can do.”
Russell bemoaned a “perfectly good” tank that’s now sitting above ground at the Town of Bethel’s highway barn.
The DEC ordered it removed because their agents said it hadn’t been appropriately monitored since it was installed with DEC approval in 1995.
Ironically, the town found the paperwork proving the proper monitoring after the agents had left.
But there was no time given to prove they were in the right, Russell said.
So now there’s a fine, plus the cost of the tank removal.
“I just feel there was a more proper way of dealing with this,” Russell said. “Not that we should be held to a different level if we’re guilty of it, we’re guilty of it.
“We don’t want to be above the law, but we want the law to work with us.”
The townships aren’t the only ones who’ve been hit.
Eldred School Interim Superintendent Charlotte Gregory is awaiting her own hearing at the DEC, set for Monday.
Because of a scheduling mix-up, she went to New Paltz last week and watched a lot of “disgruntled people walking out of that office.”
The district has already begun the work to fix any problems cited by the DEC.
“But will that save us?” she asked.
Gregory noted a “change in attitude” at the DEC, which other officials charged with being “extra hard” on Region 3.
“It’s not, ‘We want to make sure you stay in compliance,’” Gregory said. “It’s more like, ‘We want to punish you.’”
DEC Spokeswoman Wendy Rosenbach admitted the federal government is putting pressure on the DEC to pay closer attention to petroleum bulk storage after the passage of the Federal Energy Policy Act of 2005.
As a Region 3 spokesperson, Rosenbach said she can’t say how strict the agents are in other areas, but said enforcement of the law is statewide.
“This is something we’re required to do,” she said.
After meeting with Sullivan highway superintendents, Gunther said she’s already started investigating the issue.
“These guys want to do the right thing,” she said of the towns.
The fining process seems to be out of line, she continued.
“It’s like taking from Peter to pay Paul,” Gunther said.
Senior staff at the Assembly are looking into the issue, she said.