Switch Hitter

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One January morning five years ago, Judith Enck got the phone call she had been waiting 10 years for. A state official was on the other end, promising a meeting with top environmental agency staff to talk about dangerous emissions from a trash-burning incinerator.

A few days earlier the state-run incinerator, which generates power for Empire State Plaza, had belched soot all over a blanket of fresh snow that covered Albany. This scene had been replaying itself in varying degrees for nearly a decade. But on this night, the dark cloud was thick, and the winds were wayward. Instead of landing as usual in the low-income, predominately minority community of Arbor Hill, ash and oil were carried to the pristine white lawns of the Governor’s mansion and its neighbors.

Enck and her fellow environmentalists at the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG) had been lobbying unsuccessfully for years to persuade the state to make the relatively simple switch from burning trash to using clean natural gas. So it was with surprise and reservation that Enck listened to the official’s proposal of a meeting, waiting for the catch. Then it came. The meeting would start at noon, exactly when Enck had scheduled another meeting–with the press about the dangers from the incinerator’s emissions.

“They wanted me to cancel the press conference as a sign of good faith,” Enck remembers. “I laughed. I said we’d be willing to meet with them after the conference, not at noon.”

They eventually agreed to meet 45 minutes before the conference. And after that meeting, while Enck was standing before the cameras on the steps of Albany City Hall, city and state officials were talking inside. A couple of days later they announced their decision: The incinerator would no longer burn trash.

It was vintage Enck–principled, savvy and stubborn. Around green circles, she is known as a relentless defender of the environment, especially from pollution, pesticides and garbage. NYPIRG environmental associate Christian Clossner says that’s true even when allies stand in the way. “I’d be ready to strike a deal and compromise, and she’ll say, ‘No way,’ he says.

Now the obstinacy and bluntness that got her banished two years ago from top-level Pataki administration meetings with environmental groups–her outspoken criticism of the governor was not appreciated–are serving her well in the halls of power. Since March she has been a visible presence at the state Justice Building in the newly created position of policy advisor in the state Attorney General’s Environmental Protection Bureau.

Since defeating Dennis Vacco last November, Elliot Spitzer has been reconstructing the bureau, a division that Albany insiders say had been gutted during Vacco’s four years.

If Spitzer is trying to win points for bringing in serious green big guns, he couldn’t have done better than Enck. She’s so renowned for her green zeal that a couple of years ago the Legislative Correspondents Association lampooned her during its annual political roast as a nun begging for “nickels for nature,” Even her friend and former employer, NYPIRG Executive Director Chris Meyer, felt her sting when be and his wife decided to use disposable diapers for their second child. “Judith is nothing if not a loyal friend,” he says, “but you could hear [the disapproval] in her tone.”

That’s why shock rustled through Albany’s insular environmental community when Enck abandoned her 10-year post as senior environmental associate at NYPIRG to join the enemy. “A lot of friends and colleagues suggested that I’ve gone to the dark side,” Enck says. “But this Environmental Protection Bureau and this Attorney General’s office are going to do cutting-edge work.”

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Enck first spoke to then-candidate Spitzer during the final harried days ~of last July’s legislative session, when he asked to be briefed on leading state environmental issues. Enck was half thinking that she couldn’t spare the time from lobbying but finally decided to squeeze him in.

Once Spitzer started talking about using the might of the legal system to defend the environment, Enck admits, she was hooked. “I grabbed my yellow legal pad–with recycled paper, of course–and started taking notes,” she says, flashing a lighthearted frankness that belies her reputation as a brash, often strident activist.

The Spitzer camp chose Enck based on her impressive record. Besides the Albany trash-burner victory, she helped fight and defeat several other incinerators. In 1982 she helped draft the legislation for nickel deposits on recyclables; more recently, Enck pushed for a statewide government-run pesticide registry, which revealed that Brooklyn and Manhattan are among the most pesticide-ridden areas in the state. At NYPIRG Enck became an activist/advisor, using press interviews and lobbying to create legislation and alter policies and using her knowledge of politics and the environment to advise local groups.

In February, Spitzer’s team offered Enck the responsibility for the office’s big think on statewide issues, a nebulous task that begins with a topic like acid rain and a Rolodex full of experts. She’s part of a team of seven scientists and about 35 lawyers who enforce environmental law and defend the state against disgruntled corporations and communities who feel slighted by state Department of Environmental Conservation decisions. Beyond court work, the office gets to weigh in on state environmental legislation and DEC policies.

Spitzer is putting a lot of weight behind the bureau, even hiring Peter Lehner, a former senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, to head the division. Many of the same people who worked under Vacco remain in the office, but Spitzer vows they will have more support to do their jobs. In the year before Vacco came to office, the department secured $4 million in penalties. By fiscal year ’96, that had dropped to $1.9 million. “They destroyed environmental law protection,” says Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, chairman of the Environmental Conservation Committee.

Now the bureau will turn its attention to pesticides, PCBs and other pollutants. “We definitely want to be aggressive on environmental issues’ says Lehner, who headed NRDC ‘s national clean water project before coming to the bureau. “Environmental protection is something Elliot is personally interested in. Environmental issues will have strong support from the top. That has been the real difference.”

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Can Enck, who has spent the last 20 years defending the environment by causing trouble for the powers that be, be as effective from inside the system? “She has spent a lot of time criticizing government’ Brodsky notes. “Now she’s going to have to make decisions.”

Enck seems to have eased into her new role, though, already making sure she makes Spitzer look good by noting that he has met with communities on issues like breast cancer. And she uses the handy “wait and see” line like an old pro. “We’re not going to be lockstep in agreement with [environmentalists] ,” Enck says about hot points like pollution, “We want to help on these issues, but there are some things we can’t do.”

While most environmentalists hail the rebirth of a tarnished office, Brodsky reserves judgment. The concern arises from ongoing negotiations to shore up the state Superfund program before it runs out of money next year. Governor George Pataki has set up a working group that many green advocates feel is loosening regulations as it drafts refinancing plans. Brodsky’s view of the revamped bureau hardly brightened when it decided to meet with Pataki’s group.

“There are two different issues here,” he says. “With the law enforcement arm, it’s clear that will be more vigorous. For the policy arm, there the fundamental nature is unresolved.” Enck disagrees, saying that the bureau wants to create a policy of engagement with the administration.

However the bureau’s policies unfold in the long term, for now there’s a new spark and purpose among staff that many environmentalists say bode well for environmental protection. “It seems that the mission is returning,” says Jeff Jones, communications director at Albany-based Environmental Advocates. “There’s a new energy.”

That’s been the key to Enck’s comfortable adjustment into public life. In fact, she’s hardly noticed the difference. “It still feels like an environmental group,” she says, “but with better equipment.”