Budget cuts could shut down tiny environmental watchdog

After a 40 year run, the Council on Environmental Quality–the state’s tiny environmental watchdog–could be put out of business by the governor’s budget-cutting plan and its responsibilities shifted to the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

“It’s really very disheartening,” said Barbara Wagner, the chair of the all-volunteer board that oversees the Council and its two paid employees. “There’s no expectation or even intent to set aside an office that would have any appearance of impartiality or independence. It would be a watchdog within an agency.”

Office of Policy and Management Secretary Benjamin Barnes, Gov. Dannel Malloy’s budget chief, said it was the administration’s view that DEEP is itself an environmental watchdog, so it made sense to move CEQ’s responsibilities there. “The legislature has indicated it has found reporting by CEQ is helpful. A reasonable compromise would be to maintain it in this form,” he said. “We honestly felt we could satisfy the statutory requirements in a different way for less money.”

Eliminating the CEQ would save about $286,000 over the next two years, according to Malloy’s budget-cutting plan.

Barnes also said while he wasn’t belittling the role that CEQ plays, the General Assembly’s Environment Committee, the judiciary, and outside advocacy groups provide ample independent monitoring of the state’s environmental compliance.

“They do provide value,” he said of CEQ. “We eliminated it not because we think it is a bad thing. It is an easier thing to live without.”

But Wagner openly questioned whether the administration really understands CEQ’s function, noting that the governor’s original budget last winter proposed making CEQ part of the new DEEP beyond the administrative role the old Department of Environmental Protection has had all along. The legislature rejected that, opting to maintain CEQ’s independence.

The CEQ was created in 1971 along with the original DEP, to monitor the department by assessing the state’s environmental conditions and making improvement recommendations, to advise all state departments on environmental impacts of their projects and investigate environment-related complaints.

The council’s annual report is well-known and highly regarded in environmental circles, offering a broad picture of the state of Connecticut’s environment. It issues other special reports as needed, publishes a twice-monthly Environmental Monitor that includes required postings of environmental impact evaluations being undertaken by all state departments, and handles land transfers.

Acting on citizen complaints and other information the council has exposed private encroachment and illegal tree-cutting on state lands, which resulted in legislation that strengthened enforcement.

It exposed the lag in remediation of contaminated properties and wells that began with citizen complaints in Tylerville. Complaints about wetlands violations resulted in improved training requirements for municipal officials who handle wetlands protection.

“If you’re a citizen, it’s very hard to get DEP to pick up the phone,” said Roger Reynolds of the Connecticut Fund for the Environment. “CEQ picks up the phone. You go to their meeting, do your complaint and CEQ will get to the bottom of it.

“This is an incredibly efficient agency and has been incredibly valuable.”

Reynolds said it would be particularly important to maintain CEQ in these lean budget times as agencies cutback enforcement and expanded employee duties mean less time for each function.

Environment Committee co-chair Sen. Ed Meyer, D-Guilford, has asked Senate President Pro Tempore Donald Williams to make the elimination of CEQ one of those cuts the General Assembly will review in this budget-cutting process. Those decisions will come in the next few weeks.

“The poor little thing they always go after them,” said environment committee member Rep. Roberta Willis, D-Salisbury. “People don’t get what they do or how much they do.”

In the meantime, it is business as usual according to CEQ Executive Director Karl Wagener, who’s been in his position for 25 years. He and his assistant would lose their jobs for savings of $118,528 this fiscal year and $167,275 next year.

“No,  nothing’s on hold,” he said. “We’re continuing to work as we always do.”

The Council’s next public forum – its vehicle for fielding citizen concerns and suggestions – is scheduled for July 27 in Mansfield and will take place Wagener said.

“We’ve been given no direction, so we’re continuing on.”