By some accounts, New York is at the cutting edge on a hot-button environmental concern. Others say the state was tardy and has years of work to do.

At issue is vapor intrusion, a phenomenon in which chemical vapors can rise from underground contamination and accumulate in buildings, putting occupants at risk.

Under the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s program, hundreds of sites around the state are under study for evidence of vapor intrusion.

To date, more than 1,200 homes or other buildings in New York have needed measures to alleviate toxic vapor intrusion. Nearly half are in Endicott, Broome County, where the vapor intrusion issue rose to prominence in 2003.

Six are in Victor, where the DEC continues to explore groundwater contamination found in 1990.

But the program, begun soon after the extent of problems in Endicott became known, remains a work in progress. Studies have been completed at only about 20 percent of the old waste disposal sites that New York set out to examine.

Hundreds more sites, including dozens in the Rochester area, await a DEC assessment to determine whether building occupants have anything to fear from below-ground vapors.

Those efforts should have begun sooner, some say.

“It’s really just a huge mistake on the agency’s part,” said Anne Rabe, a longtime environmental activist who is a campaign coordinator for the Center for Health, Environment & Justice.

“Under Governor (George) Pataki, there was a political determination to cut back on looking at off-site contamination. It was a more industry-friendly program. They cut corners, and they created these Endicott sites – by not investigating vapor intrusion.”

Denise Sheehan, the DEC commissioner in the last two years of the Pataki administration, said experts in New York and elsewhere did not recognize the threat posed by toxic vapors until a few years ago. “You have to respond to the science. Over the years, the science has changed,” she said.

Current DEC commissioner Pete Grannis, appointed in April by first-year Gov. Eliot Spitzer, said he is not sure the agency was late getting to the issue.

“Should they have been more aggressive sooner? Possibly,” said Grannis, who dealt with environmental issues as a member of the state Assembly. “I’m a big believer in us being ahead of the curve, (but) I don’t think anybody truly understood the breadth of and the concerns about vapor intrusion.”

Today, he said, the DEC has “the most far-reaching and aggressive vapor intrusion investigative program in the country.”

Lenny Siegel, an environmental activist in California who advises groups about vapor intrusion, praised New York’s program as “leading edge” at a recent public forum in Albany.

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