The Department of Environmental Conservation’s (DEC’s) mission is to conserve, improve, and protect New York’s natural resources and environment. To advance our mission, DEC works closely with a wide range of partners to help protect the health of residents and build stronger communities by preventing, reducing, or controlling potential pollution and exposure to contamination.
The close connection between public health and the environment isn’t new. Ancient civilizations that built sophisticated sewer systems to move stormwater from streets recognized that potential pollutants, such as wastewater, should be kept away from water sources. However, it wasn’t until 1854 when a London doctor traced the source of a cholera epidemic to a well in Soho that wastewater treatment began evolving to specifically protect public health.
Today, DEC’s Division of Water monitors water quality through a variety of programs, establishes water quality standards based on a waterbody’s highest and best use, and protects water quality by requiring permits that control the discharge of pollutants. In addition, New York State is making record-setting investments to help municipalities repair and replace aging infrastructure, tackle projects to address documented water quality impairments, and protect drinking water sources.
Protecting waters that are home to a variety of animal species and used for recreational purposes is also extremely important. This is why DEC is using cutting-edge research to investigate and monitor certain types of algae that can grow quickly and form blooms. While all blooms are not harmful, some species of algae, called harmful algal blooms (HABs), can produce toxins that are potentially unsafe for people and animals. DEC’s work to reduce the frequency of HABs includes requiring controls on the discharge of excessive nutrients to waterbodies.
Air pollution damages human health and the environment, as well. Hot summer weather sets the stage for the formation of ozone (O3) and fine particulate matter (PM2.5), two significant pollutants of concern, especially for people with asthma, emphysema, and other respiratory diseases. DEC’s Division of Air monitors air quality across the state, limits facilities’ potential to emit pollution through permitting programs, and works to reduce or eliminate emissions from mobile sources and architectural coatings such as paints. To ensure compliance, emissions tests are reviewed and air pollution control devices are checked routinely to ensure equipment is functioning correctly.
Fish and wildlife can also suffer from exposure to pollutants such as acid rain, mercury, and PCBs in air and water. Bioaccumulation of contaminants can then affect people as toxins travel up the food chain. DEC monitors pollutant levels to ensure these levels don’t exceed appropriate standards and works closely with agency partners, like the New York State Department of Health (DOH), to issue consumption advisories to help the public make healthier choices about which fish—and how many—to eat and from which waterbody.
While our water and air divisions are focused on preventing pollution, DEC’s Division of Environmental Remediation is focused on the clean-up of hazardous contamination from New York’s legacy of industrial operations and emerging contaminant threats. Efforts focus on protecting the migration contaminants and preventing exposure with contaminated soils, leaching of the contaminants into surface and groundwater, and contamination of indoor air as volatile compounds turn to vapor and potentially enter buildings. DEC, with DOH and local partners, work to address exposure pathways and remediate former industrial sites for productive reuse.
DEC’s Division of Materials Management (DMM) works to ensure the chemicals we use and the wastes we generate do not become problems for the future. DMM works to prevent environmental contamination by regulating solid waste management and pesticide use and encouraging reduction, reuse, and recycling. If disposal is necessary, DEC’s geologists and engineers work to ensure the design and construction of facilities processing and receiving waste reduce the risk of contaminants and potential for affecting people.
While every DEC unit is not noted here, since 1970 everyone at DEC has worked toward one common goal—protecting and preserving our natural resources so that future generations can live in a cleaner more sustainable New York. We look forward to continuing our progress to advance a cleaner and greener environment and the health benefits it provides for all New Yorkers.
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