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NYS DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos discusses decision to step down from role this spring

New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Basil Seggos and WAMC's Lucas Willard
New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Basil Seggos and WAMC's Lucas Willard
/
WAMC
New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Basil Seggos and WAMC's Lucas Willard

New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Basil Seggos is stepping down.

After more than eight years in the position, under two governors, Seggos will leave Democratic Governor Kathy Hochul’s administration this spring as state’s longest-serving DEC Commissioner.

While in Governor Andrew Cuomo’s cabinet, Seggos in November 2018 announced plans to leave the post, but changed his mind the following February.

WAMC’s Lucas Willard spoke with Seggos about his newly announced career plans and why he chose to stay on the job five years ago:

The work is incredible. It really is an incredible position, DEC Commissioner. And I honor it, I try to honor it every day when I come in because the stakes are so high. People expect a lot out of us in New York. People look at us from beyond New York, what are we doing as a state to protect the environment, to advance new policies. So, I take that really seriously and I've been lucky, in particular, in the last few years to have a governor that has really backed me up, backed up this agency, and allowed us to do really big things. So, when I think about what kept me coming back to this job, it was the work, it was the stuff that we had not yet done that was extraordinarily promising, in some ways, and, of course, obviously, having the resources to do it, but in some ways, it comes down to the people you work with. And, I think, 2015, I inherit the agency, right? Come in, basically, inherited a team. And over that time, I've basically built the team, 140-plus appointees now within the agency, and I think all but two of them are mine, which is kind of crazy to think about. I think I've just been so lucky to build an amazing team, that I want to come back and work with them. And that I think has driven me forward, just constantly over time.

So what led you to the decision to say, “I'm ready to take a step back?”
 
Well, listen, it's a range of factors. I mean, eight and a half years is a long time in a job like this. And, I have just big interests. Not that this isn't a huge job, it is. But I have interests beyond this job. I've been doing a lot on international front and the last couple of years, I've drawn to things beyond just the environmental world. That is my focus, that's my expertise, that's what I will always be doing, but I think that's just for starters, what's sort of, you know, reminded me that I need to start challenging myself a little bit more in my career. And the other thing is, I think every institution needs change, sometimes. I am not jaded, I'm not tired. We don't have a negative negativity within the office that's kind of driven me out. I truly am surrounded by really amazing, positive people. So it isn't that, but I know that the institution itself needs to change. All of them do. Every single institution needs to bring somebody in every few years at the top to just create new energy, new ideas. And I feel like I've done what I wanted to do, build it, rebuild, in some ways, add lots of new staff and resources, done some really extraordinary things on the outside. I think just the work we've done with the legislature on keeping New York in the lead on so many environmental issues, that I knew I could step away. And there's always going to be just like 15 things on the table that, “Oh, I wish if I just had one more month, I could just do these 15 more things.” But it really is, I think I just know it's time and I've made the right choice here.

Now, you are sticking around through the budget season. Is there any particular environmental legislation that's on the table right now that you really want to get out the door and over the hurdle, through the legislature, to the governor before you take a step back in May?

Yeah, well, listen, I mean, we have…in a very challenging budget year, we actually have a very good budget, DEC does. So, I want to make sure that we have that, that our staffing numbers are the same, that we have the investments the governor wants to make on the Environmental Protection Fund, $400 million, clean water, $500 million over two years. You know, the work we do on brownfield Superfund, all of that relies on good staffing. So, I mean, those are the things I absolutely want to secure. The legislature is going to work on a number of big issues over the next several months, probably beyond my tenure into the legislative session, which ends in June. So, there'll be some things that come up, I think, during the next, you know, when the one houses drop, probably, what? Next week? Next couple of weeks? We'll make some assessments at that point as to what we need to do to triangulate and advance the governor’s proposals. But you know, we have really, really great ideas in the works right now, the governor's tree proposal increasing the tree cover in New York State, by 2033, 25 million trees, you know, a big down payment on cleaning our air and greening our streets. So that's certainly there. And resiliency is a huge focus right now, climate resiliency. That is, in some ways, part of the budget, but it's really a State of the State initiative, we want to make sure we're putting money into keeping the state on a proactive footing when it comes to climate change and severe weather. And I think that's something I want to solidify before I leave.

Do you think that the state is still on track to meet its climate goals? But also there are some big-ticket items of legislation that are a part of that, like the HEAT act. That still faces some opposition in the legislature. There is a push back on the electrifying of school buses. Do you think that there are significant hurdles in the legislature to getting some major legislation passed to keep New York on track?

I think there are significant hurdles worldwide on this issue. I mean, New York is not different. We are seeing the concerns about affordability, the concerns about technology, the marketplace. COVID really took a chunk out of the progress we were making, the supply chain issues that still linger, inflation. I mean, all of that is impacting the environmental community, the environmental movement, if you will, or the green economy. So, New York is absolutely part of that. That said, you know, we had a 10-15 year head start. We started doing this as a state back in the late 2000s. And then really on an aggressive footing in the last five years. So, are we going to meet our deadlines? Are we going to meet our targets? I think we absolutely have to. I don't think there's a there's a possibility for us not. But, there's a reality of this transition. All transitions are hard. Every single time you make change is very difficult. And you have to listen to people, listen to stakeholders, advance policies that help to make those bridges between communities. And that's the position we're in right now. We're in that very delicate middle ground between you hatch a really good idea, and you're implementing it. And now we're starting to implement it. And we're seeing the concerns pop up from lots of quarters that we're either not doing enough, or we're doing too much. And all of that is real, all of those concerns we need to take into account, but ultimately, we have to do this because I think, listen, all of your listeners, many of your listeners are seeing the impacts of climate change in New York, seeing it worldwide. This is going to be the issue over the next 30 years that defines how we survive as a society. And I don't say that with a degree of hyperbole. I really, truly believe that or I wouldn't have gotten into this job. We have to find ways forward. School buses, right? There's myth reality on the school buses. I mean, there's a lot of studies that go into electric school buses. There's one that came out, this purportedly came out of Vermont, that talked about their unreliability and cold weather. Well, you know, there's a study that came out in Montana that showed that these buses operate, electric school buses operate in sub-arctic conditions. So, I mean, the truth is out there. We have to plow through it and ultimately communicate and the pushback from legislatures, you know, we take that seriously. We communicate with them. We communicate with the communities, various community groups that that have concerns and I think that's just part of our job is to communicate.

You were serving in your position as Commissioner when PFAS contamination was confirmed in several New York communities and that's now become a national issue, is PFAS pollution…

That was my second week on the job!

Do you think that there are lessons from the experiences of what the state went through when working through issues like Hoosick Falls that you applied to other things that happened along the way?

Yeah, listen, I'm glad you raised that one. That was the second week of the job for me. Somebody said, “Hey.” It was a former deputy commissioner, said, “Hey, we've got this problem with something called PFAS in Hoosick Falls.” And I didn't know what PFAS was, or even where Hoosick Falls was, being brand new to the job. But I certainly learned quickly enough. You know, when you have a village lose its water supply, it's a very scary thing. And this is obviously right on the heels of Flint. It's on the heels of lots of things that were happening in the mid twenty-teens, where people were beginning to truly beginning to mistrust institutions and governments. So, I saw what was happening there as one of those pivot points for the agency and for the movement. People becoming aware of the conditions of their water, people, at the same time, perhaps lacking or losing faith in government. And then this 24/7 news cycle that all kind of hit at the same time. All that mixed up with this brand-new technology, right? That can now measure two parts per trillion, which didn't really exist 20, 30 years ago, of course. So, all of that sort of came together at the same point where, you know, when I took over at DEC, and we knew we had a serious crisis on our hands. And for me, I had to turn to everyone in the agency and say, “Team, how can we solve this?” And the engineers had some solutions. Communications team had some solutions. And then the forest rangers, that we know from, you know, helicoptering or climbing into the Adirondacks and rescuing lives, said, “Hey, we can do plumbing installations. And we can do it quickly. And we can start to restore people's clean water.” And they did. They organized, what I said at the time, I think was the fastest growing plumbing company in North America. That was just the ingenuity of people who need who knew how to deal with a crisis. So, we had our rangers, our ECO’s, our engineers, we opened up a forward-facing office in the former Ford facility out there, Ford dealership, and just surged everyone into solve the problem. And you know what? We did. I'm so proud of the 800 plumbing installations that we did. The work that we did, we obviously, were taking it on the chin on a regular basis there. But we just determined to just keep working through it, work with the community, listen to community, incorporate their concerns in and ultimately determine how to kind of create these long term solutions. So all of that came together. And that was like, for me, that was something that hasn't even finished yet. I still asked my staff on regular basis, “Where are we with an alternate water supply? Where are we with the various cleanup, the Superfund negotiations?” I mean, that's eight and a half years of work. So how do we apply that to everything else? It's, I think, just recognizing that we have to care about the smallest things. And that often is the water, you can't just think about big things like climate change and nation-leading policies. You have to worry about what's in the backyard, what's in your backyard, and be attuned to people when they tell you that they're afraid of what's in their water. And for us, that changed our agency. It really did. It put us from sort of a passive footing into something really proactive, very forward leaning. We stopped using passive language, even, in most of our press releases, as stupid as that sounds. I mean, I just wanted to get the agency thinking more proactively and to adopt more responsibility for everything that we did. And I think it's that approach we've taken into everything else that we've done as an agency, not always perfect, but forward leaning, use every resource that we have, work across with other agencies, and ultimately be present on the ground and communities and make these strong relationships.

When it comes to clean water, there's a discussion ongoing right now about a new method of fracking. Hydrofracking has had a moratorium and a ban placed on it in New York. And now there's a new method that involves gas, CO2 gas. Is DEC examining the issue right now, this gas-based version of fracking. And do you have any thoughts on the matter? 

Well, I tell you, I was asked us to do my budget hearing a few weeks ago. We still have not received an application for this technology. I know about as much of it as you do, which is saying something. They really have put an emphasis on outreach to communities down there without sort of engaging on the regulatory side, which always makes me concerned. By outreach, I'm saying that some of the leases, I think, that I've heard, the company is now inking down there. So, listen, I'm always concerned when the first approach is to apply by press release, or apply by outreach to community. If you're going to apply for a permit, you really need to engage with the regulator. So, we really are, at this stage, at a loss as to why that hasn't happened yet. And I'm skeptical as to this technology moving forward until I can actually take a look at it and see it and understand it, potential impacts. You know what this mean, on a grand scale in the Southern Tier, for example. I mean, these questions I can't even answer right now, because I don't know what this actually is. 

There's also ongoing discussion among, particularly, people in the Hudson Valley about PCB cleanup and whether the EPA will require GE to go back to the river to do more cleanup. We saw it above the dam in Troy. But now there's the discussion as if that's needed in the lower Hudson. What do you think about this discussion? And are you hoping to see more PCB cleanup in the future? 

Well, listen, we're gonna let science drive us on this. Science has to drive this this clean up because there is a lot of concern and a lot of emotion involved with this incredibly significant Superfund site. Yes, a lot of work has been done. We're now nearing, I think, the next five-year review cycle, where the EPA is going to put out its determinations as to the progress of the cleanup, right? So, I mean, I'm gonna hold judgment until we see that fully, what it looks like, what the science is saying about the cleanup. This is primarily the upper Hudson. We had some concerns in the last cycle, five years ago, that the cleanup was not showing it was protective of human health and the environment, that ultimately, the goals set out in the record of decision, the consent order, what triggered all of this work, were not going to be met, and the can is been kicked further down the road, right? By factor of years and decades, until the river would be fishable. Right? Fully fishable. So yes, we are very concerned about it. There's no doubt there's still PCBs in the sediment. There’s no doubt that it's likely traveled over the Troy dam into the lower Hudson. You know, we are going to have to work closely with the EPA, as we always do, no matter the administration, to ensure that the numbers we’re being shown are real. And if they're not, then we have to do our own science, which we've done in the past. I think, as you saw about seven years ago.

You mentioned the rangers with assisting in the Hoosick Falls water crisis. There's been stories that have been put out there about a shortage of rangers and making sure that rangers are trained, retained and equipped. How do you feel about the future of New York State's ranger and making sure that men and women stay on the job? 

Well, listen, I feel really good about the rangers right now. Hopefully, the rangers also feel good about the agency. Since my tenure, I think we've had four classes, four ranger academies, the fifth one is going to start this spring. So, they're at their highest number ever, which is good. That said, obviously, there's more pressure than ever on the back country. There's more crises that we're having to respond to. I mean, climate change, severe weather. Our rangers and ECOs are on the frontlines of climate responses, right? Flooding, storm events, and like so, you know, we use them more and more for really big and important things. So, I will always look to right size the force. I think that's why we're doing almost yearly if not every 18 months, academies. That really was not the case for about a decade and a half at the agency. So, we're catching up.

So, the public usually sees you on the news wearing a suit and tie behind a lectern. I remember seeing you one time on the job on the banks of a frozen Hudson River during kind of an informal Tugboat Roundup.

Haha, yes. I remember that.

Reflecting on that, the anniversary of that I think just came by. Reflecting on that, and the response to that, how do you think the agency responded? That was just a wild day.

That was a wild day. Yeah. I mean, it was an ice jam that broke, right? And not just a little bit of ice, it was the whole surface of the Hudson all of a sudden gave way. And, you know, every dock and you know, every party boat, and whatever structure was near the shoreline, it was getting washed away. And I think it was the, I forget the name of that…

The Captain JP…

The Captain JP, yeah. Seeing that thing heading down towards the rail bridge. And I said to myself, “Alright, this is, this is not good. We got it. We've got to start making some phone calls and corralling some resources.” And that was actually I mean, honestly, you know, no one got injured. Thank God on that one. It was dramatic as these massive ice chunks were floating past the waterfront in Albany and Troy. And, you know, we got quick response from a bunch of the tugboat captains who were able to get through the thick ice and start corralling some of these barges that were banging around. I mean, you know, I look back at it with a little bit of humor, because it was, you know, a bit of an insane event. But listen, this is DEC, there are these events all the time, it's not always barges. You know, sometimes it's the bear up the tree. We are so plugged in to so many amazing cool things that happen in the state and so many difficult things that happen in the state, that this job is one in which you get to have fun at times, when you're when you're solving problems. 

Are you going to stay involved in New York state policies or politics moving forward? 

Yeah, you know, look. I'm going to take a knee for a little bit. I think it's important to take time off once in a while, I haven't had more than a week off in 20-something years. So, I think I'll start there. Am I going to remain involved in New York, in politics? Absolutely. I mean, I truly love the state. I really, really made it my home in every respect. I truly love public service. You know, that's gonna be the toughest thing is just not being a public servant because it is so rewarding. You know, obviously, there's costs to your family, and sometimes to your health, being in these jobs. But they truly are the greatest jobs. When you're able to wake up every day and go in and serve people, make people's lives better, that's the goal every day. And the old adage of you never work a day in your life, if you love what you do. I mean, it's corny, but it's so true. I mean, I've truly loved every single day, and I never really felt like I was going to work. So public service, it'll always be there in my mind. What the next chapter is, I'm still developing it, but I won't leave the space.

Do you have a favorite accomplishment and then also, maybe, a regret in your time as commissioner? 

Yeah, a favorite accomplishment? I think. I mean, you mentioned Hoosick Falls, it certainly is one of them, you know, the trial by fire. And emerging from it ultimately, I think successful. That, for me ,is one. Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, I mean, getting that passed, of course. Running the Climate Action Council with Doreen Harris at NYSERDA. That was really, really important for me and how we've advanced that. Superfund reforms, brownfields, I mean, $4.2 billion bond act, which we didn't have when I started. Five and a half billion dollars to clean water, which didn't exist when I started. EPF was at 0…what was it, 136? And now it's $400 million. So there’s lots of things like that, that I can say, “Wow, I think I really accomplished something in this job.” And then there’s gonna be a lot of little things that are just not seen that I really take pride in. Growing my staff from 2,800 to 3,300, right? It's not headline stuff, but it really makes a difference for New Yorkers health and safety. First ever Deputy Commissioner for Equity and Justice. I was really proud to start that. The first ever Indian Nations Affairs Office. Our FOIL response time, now 12 days. It's little things like that, ultimately, that make a huge difference in the success of an agency or institution. When you mind the ship, you're not just chasing the big policies, you're focusing on your people. Again, taking out the passive language, right? Everything's active, forward leaning. We have fun in the agency, I think I'm really proud of just setting a good tone at the agency and bringing in awesome people. And there's lots of the outside stuff that I'll never forget. Just driving through the Adirondacks. And well, there's the Finch property, right? I had a hand and in doing that. The Follansby property that we just announced a couple weeks ago. That to me is gonna be some legacy stuff. But yeah, it's the people that you work with that you treasure the most, I think, and that's what I will miss the most.

Any regrets? Or anything you didn't…

Regrets? Yeah. Yeah, I don't think I've changed, ultimately…I would have liked more time to continue diversifying the agency. You know, we're still a very homogenous agency. And I know a lot of conservation agencies suffer from that, but we've started putting in place those policies and those practices that will make us more representative of New Yorkers. And I think that, to me, is one thing where I wouldn't call it as much of a regret, as much as I would “this is something I really have not yet accomplished that, that I really wanted to.” Of course, there's probably lots of regrets, things I shouldn't have said in public or, you know, places I should have been when I when I wasn't. It was a lots of little things, honestly. And you tend not to think about those, at least I tend to think about them. Maybe that's why I'm still in this job. I try not to obsess about criticism. As much as I am as hard on myself, I don't really get into the criticism, I don't read a lot of the comments on social media. I just, I try to keep a positive outlook on everything I do. And I never take swipes at people. It's just not my style. If people are swiping me, it's for some reason that I've got to kind of understand. And, and yeah, just plow forward and be positive. Try to be a leader as well, as a manager.

And Ukraine. The war is still going on, unfortunately.  And you've volunteered in the past. Are you planning on any other trips to Ukraine? 

Is my wife listening? Sure. Listen, that's been one of the most rewarding things in my life, being a part of the small sliver of humanitarian help in the middle of that war. I think that it is one of those issues right now that is so consequential to everything that we care about here, even here in Albany. Right? We work on climate change, we work on elections, making sure that our democracy is sound. So much of it traces back to what's going on over there. And I say that, because there's really, in a way, there’s a pivot point between two very different futures with Ukraine right now. One, where Ukraine gets rolled over, right? We allow it to happen. Western society is “we”. And the U.S.. We allow it to happen. Ukraine falls, Russia moves toward NATO, or Russia takes over non-NATO countries and continues this. And China looks at Taiwan and other authoritarian nations look at other places they might want to take over and steamroll. Is that the future that we want? Or, is it one in which we defend democracy? You know, we defend democracy at home and abroad. We look out for the rights of the underdog. We champion our international institutions that we built. NATO, the U.N., right? We built those things for a reason. Yes, they're not perfect. You know, the U.N., of course, hasn't yet reached its mission of preventing wars. That doesn't mean we give up on them. It means maybe they need some reform. So, I think we have some choices to make right now that are really consequential. I think about like, climate change, for example. We can't do this just alone here in New York. It's gotta be national, but it's got to be international. What happens if there's, that we don't have a platform for working together on an international level because we've lost so much by Ukraine's failing, by Ukraine's collapse? That, to me is frightening because we need to ultimately have that international cohesion. But it does boil down to people, again, like, you know, I was moved by what was going on at the early stages of the war. I determined I needed to get off the sidelines, do what I could to help. So again, small sliver of help, right? Just delivering, primarily, ambulances and medical supplies. But in the process getting over there, you know, seeing the damage firsthand, meeting the people firsthand, befriending many of them eating with some of the soldiers and in trenches and then bringing some degree of hope or help, that the wider world cared about what they were going for. For me, I mean, there's some just things that just will never get out of my mind. All of it positive, yes, in the context of some true horror. But you see something like that, and you see how people persevere through trauma. There's laughter in trenches, you know? Laughter in villages that have been destroyed, where people have been recently killed. And yet, there's still kind of positivity, like people finding a way forward. So. it's been in that respect, very inspiring, for me to see that and experience it firsthand. So. I'm going to remain involved. Absolutely. I’d get back there, if I can. That's my intent. I've been there three times. I've been able to…last time I was there we went from delivering an ambulance to the frontline. And then a couple days later, we were in the president's office in the situation room talking about battlefield medicine. So, just the swings of emotion and experience have been something that honestly have changed my life and ultimately, I think, made me interested in helping out on a bigger scale.

Last question, with looking ahead at DEC when you're no longer Commissioner… a lot of environmental policy that comes out of New York ends up being mimicked across the country. So, what are your hopes and predictions for how New York will continue and how Governor Hochul will continue?  

I am 100% confident that this governor will continue to lead not just New York but the country on the environment. I mean, she truly gets it. Her second day on the job, she had a meeting with EPA Administrator Michael Regan and me to talk about climate work, on water. That was her second day. I think within a couple of weeks, it was some hurricane and some massive damage downstate. So, I think she has experienced these issues personally, environmental issues, her whole life. She tells a story about Lake Erie pollution. And then, you know, it hit home hard when she took office. She's done nothing but give us incredible resources at the agency. Again, in a year where there's tightness in the budget, our staffing is gonna be held steady and we're actually getting more money for a range of issues. So, I'm confident that under her leadership, this state will continue to be a leader, continue to lead the way in the country. California gets lots of credit all the time. Not that I have a chip on my shoulder about California. But I think that most things happen in New York. Sun rises first here. We do the really tough stuff here and ultimately set the tone for the nation.

Lucas Willard is a reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011.