Alexander B. Grannis, chief of the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), was fired by Gov. David Paterson late last Thursday after an unsigned memo was leaked to the press disparaging staff cuts that would, among other things, impede the agency's effectiveness to oversee natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale.

The memo was leaked to the Albany Times Union in New York last Tuesday, warning that cutting an additional 209 personnel from the DEC would severely threaten enforcement of the state's environmental and permitting programs. The department already has eliminated 595 employees over the past two and a half years because of budget cuts.

"Many of our programs are hanging by a thread," the memo stated. "The public would be shocked to learn how thin we are in many areas. DEC is in the weakest position that it has been since it was created 40 years ago."

The memo warned of "potential serious risks to human health and safety and environmental quality" without adequate staffing. Because of earlier cutbacks, the memo noted that the DEC is cleaning fewer polluted sites, delaying environmental reviews and reducing inspections.

"In many instances, we have offices or sections responsible for important permitting and monitoring functions staffed by only one or two people."

When Paterson announced statewide budget cuts earlier this month, the Independent Oil & Gas Association of New York (IOGA) weighed in, suggesting that the DEC cuts could be scuttled if permitting fees from new Marcellus Shale wells were dedicated to staffing (see Shale Daily, Oct. 20).

Last Friday, in reaction to Grannis' firing, the IOGA said it opposed further staff reductions and said additional staff was needed to administer drilling permits and to enforce department rules governing hydraulic fracturing (hydrofracking).

"More staff is needed," said IOGA spokesman Jim Smith. There are "milestones" ahead, he said, that involve not only the permitting process but also any possible drilling plans for the Marcellus Shale, when DEC inspectors would have to be present.

Environmental groups also reacted negatively last Friday to the DEC chief's dismissal. Sixteen organizations called upon Paterson to reinstate Grannis, and some said Paterson's successor, to be decided in the Nov. 2 election, should reappoint him.

"The ball now moves to the court of the people running for governor," said Robert Moore, executive director of Environmental Advocates of New York, which monitors state government policy and legislation. "It's time to rebuild."

Moore noted that DEC had lost "about 20% of its scientists, engineers and enforcement officials over the last few years...I think Gov. Paterson has been dismantling the agency for two years and he's finally cut off its head."

Without adequate DEC staffing, safe drilling is impossible, said James Gennaro, a New York City councilman.

"The future of hydrofracking in New York State is really the most important environmental issue that we face, and we need a strong DEC to protect New York State drinking water," said Gennaro. He was among those who successfully lobbied the DEC to impose strict drilling restrictions in upstate watersheds that supply water to New York City (see Daily GPI, April 27).