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Seggos quitting as DEC commissioner after 8-year tenure, leaving mixed environmental legacy in Finger Lakes

Basil Seggos confirmed late yesterday that he’s stepping down as Commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Conservation after an eight-year term.

He plans to continue working in Gov. Kathy Hochul’s administration through state budget negotiations in the spring, according to a brief note he sent to his agency staff yesterday. The governor has not yet appointed his successor, who will have to be confirmed by the state Senate.

“This has been an extremely tough decision because DEC is like a second home and I view you all like family,” Seggos told staffers. “And to make it harder, we have really hit our stride lately, thanks to brilliant and dedicated staff, record funding, and a governor who truly supports our agency, our people and the mission of protecting the environment. 

“But after more than eight years in this role, this is the right decision for me and my family. It’s time for a new chapter.”

Seggos was appointed commissioner in October 2015 by former Gov. Andrew Cuomo. He had announced that he was leaving the job in 2018 but soon changed his mind and stayed to complete the longest tenure ever for a DEC commissioner. He has served under Hochul since she was first sworn in August 2021.

“Gov. Hochul is grateful for Commissioner Seggos’ dedication to protecting New Yorkers and our environment,” said Katy Zielinski, a spokeswoman for Hochul.

Julie Tighe, Seggos’ former chief of staff who now serves as president of the New York League of Conservation Voters, praised his role in the state’s fight against climate change.

“From the CLCPA (the state’s 2019 Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act) the Clean Water Infrastructure Act to the Environmental Bond Act to the ban on plastic bags to food waste recycling – to the hundreds of other initiatives all across the State – his legacy of environmental protection and of kicking the climate fight into high gear will be felt for generations,” Tighe said in a statement.

Tighe didn’t mention Seggos’ role against enforcing the state’s Green Amendment, which placed an individual right to clean air and water into the state Constitution.

The DEC is currently arguing in court that the Green Amendment initiative passed by an overwhelming majority of New Yorkers is unenforceable without enabling legislation — a much-disputed legal stance that hamstrings Finger Lakes residents who live near three giant landfills that stink.

His legacy for dealing with environmental issues in the Finger Lakes has been mixed.

For example, the DEC under Seggos has gone to court to argue against requiring Cargill to prepare an environmental impact statement for its huge salt mine under Cayuga Lake, despite widespread local calls for the agency to be more transparent.

And the agency has also enabled Greenidge Generation to continue operating a Bitcoin mining operation at a power plant on Seneca Lake that advocates argue has bent environmental rules. Greenidge’s co-owner, Andrew Bursky, is a campaign finance heavyweight and a behind-the-scenes political kingmaker.

The DEC also declined to enforce its June 2022 decision to deny Greenidge’s air emissions permit. Instead, Seggos and the Hochul Administration allowed the company to continue operating as usual while it appealed within the agency through a cumbersome process that typically drags on for years.

Under Seggos, the Hochul Administration has touted the use of municipal sewage sludge as an excellent fertilizer for farm fields despite abundant evidence in New York and other states that it is often laced with PFAS ‘forever chemicals’ and other toxic substances.

The town of Auburn and Owasco have continually pressed the DEC and to do more to reduce toxic cyanobacteria blooms that have plague Owasco Lake and all the other Finger Lakes.

On Monday, state Legislators representing Schuyler County appealed directly to Seggos to grant county residents more time to comment on a proposed expansion of a gravel mine adjacent to the Watkins Glen State Park.

After secretly negotiating with the mine’s owner for 16 years, the DEC shocked local residents and officials by announcing it was prepared to rule quickly on plans to quintuple the mine’s acreage. 

The agency has refused to budge from its Feb. 28 cutoff for public comment, in spite of multiple appeals from residents and local, county and state officials.

But Yvonne Taylor, co-founder of Seneca Lake Guardian and one of the region’s leading environmental activists, expressed an overall favorable view of Seggos’ job. “I know some people don’t like him, but I think he’s been a friend to the Finger Lakes. I wonder why he’s going and who will take his place…,” she said in an email this morning. 

Meanwhile on Tuesday, Seggos published a heartfelt essay on the war in Ukraine titled “The Fate of Democracy in the Hands of Congress.” 

Writing for the Empire Report, Seggos revealed that he has made three humanitarian visits to Ukraine since the Russian invasion began two years ago.

“The fate of Ukraine,” he wrote, “has brought two very distinct futures for our planet into focus: a future dominated by those who treasure transactional relations, isolationism, and strongman authoritarianism upon which a terrifying future would be certain; or a future defined by those who value human life, freedom, self-governance and the multilateral world order upon which progress is being built.”