The mission of the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) is to preserve, enhance, and protect New York’s natural resources and environment. To advance our mission, DEC works closely with a variety of partners to protect the health of residents and build stronger communities by preventing, reducing, or controlling potential pollution and contamination.
The close link between public health and the environment is not new. Ancient civilizations that built sophisticated sewage systems to drain rainwater off the streets realized that potential pollutants such as sewage 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 developed specifically to protect public health.
Today, the DEC Department of Water monitors water quality through a variety of programs, establishes water quality standards based on the highest and best use of a body of water, and protects water quality by requiring permits to control discharges of pollutants. In addition, New York State is making record-breaking investments to help communities repair and replace aging infrastructure, begin projects to fix documented water quality issues, and protect drinking water sources.
The protection of water bodies, which are home to a large number of animal species and are used for recreational purposes, is also of great importance. That’s why DEC uses cutting-edge research to study and monitor specific types of algae that can grow and bloom rapidly. While all blooms are not harmful, some types of algae, known as harmful algal blooms (HABs), can produce toxins that are potentially unsafe for humans and animals. DEC’s work to reduce the incidence of HABs includes calling for controls on discharges of excess nutrients into water bodies.
Air pollution also harms human health and the environment. Hot summer weather sets the stage for the formation of ozone (O3) and particulate matter (PM2.5), two major pollutants of concern, particularly for people with asthma, emphysema and other respiratory conditions. DEC’s Department of Air monitors air quality statewide, limits facilities’ potential to emit pollutants through permitting programs, and works to reduce or eliminate emissions from mobile sources and structural coatings such as paint. Emissions tests are verified to ensure compliance and air pollution control devices are routinely checked to ensure devices are functioning properly.
Fish and wildlife can also suffer from pollutants such as acid rain, mercury and PCBs in the air and water. The bioaccumulation of pollutants can then affect humans as toxins travel up the food chain. DEC monitors levels of contaminants to ensure levels do not exceed appropriate standards and works closely with agency partners, such as the New York State Department of Health (DOH), to provide consumption guidelines to help the public make healthier choices about them what fish – and how many – to eat and from what body of water.
While our water and air departments focus on pollution prevention, DEC’s environmental remediation department focuses on cleaning up hazardous contaminants from New York’s industrial heritage and emerging pollution threats. Efforts are focused on protecting the migrating pollutants and preventing exposure to contaminated soils, leaching of the pollutants into surface and groundwater, and contamination of indoor air as volatile compounds convert to vapor and potentially enter buildings. DEC is working with DOH and local partners to address exposure pathways and remediate former industrial sites for productive reuse.
DEC’s Division of Materials Management (DMM) works to ensure that the chemicals we use and the waste we generate do not become problems for the future. DMM works to prevent pollution by regulating solid waste disposal and use of pesticides, and encouraging reduction, reuse and recycling. When disposal is required, DEC geologists and engineers work to ensure that the design and construction of waste processing and receiving facilities reduce the risk of contaminants and the possibility of human impact.
While not every DEC entity is listed here, everyone at DEC has worked towards a common goal since the 1970s – protecting and preserving our natural resources so future generations can live in a cleaner, more sustainable New York. We look forward to continuing our advances to promote a cleaner, greener environment and the health benefits it offers to all New Yorkers.