Ulster County and Riverkeeper call on state enviro cops to crack down on the DEP

Above: A satellite image of the turbid lower Esopus spilling into the Hudson River. From Google Maps.

Ulster County executive Mike Hein has fired another salvo in his ongoing battle with the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). Today, Ulster County and Riverkeeper submitted a joint petition to the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), claiming that the city agency's muddy-water releases from the Ashokan Reservoir into the Lower Esopus are violating state and federal water pollution law.

When a storm strikes in the Catskills, stirring up mud and silt in the city's west-of-Hudson watershed, the DEP basically has two choices to make sure the water isn't contaminated by the time it reaches the city: Drain off some of the excess turbidity from the Ashokan Reservoir via the Ashokan Release Channel, or use an additive called alum in the Kensico to settle contaminated particles.

Both options carry environmental costs, and both were cited in a DEC decision earlier this year to fine the DEP $2.6 million for its turbid lower Esopus releases.

The Ashokan Release Channel is also used to drain water out of the Ashokan when the reservoir is overly full, threatening downstream communities with flooding.

The petition filed today with the DEC by Ulster County and Riverkeeper argues that the DEP's Ashokan muddy water releases are illegal, and calls on the DEC to require that the city obtain a water-pollution permit (dubbed a State Pollution Discharge Elimination System, or "SPDES" permit) for any further discharges.

From a Riverkeeper press release issued today:

“As part of our continuing efforts to fight this longstanding injustice, we have moved, in conjunction with Riverkeeper, to protect Ulster County residents, businesses and our pristine environment,” said Ulster County Executive Mike Hein. “The people of Ulster County have been patient in waiting for the New York City DEP to provide a better choice than mud or flood. It is important that the environmental review and permit process that has been ignored by the DEP take place immediately.”

In response to the petition, DEP spokesman Farrell Sklerov told the Watershed Post that Hein's effort to restrict city water releases could result in dangerous flooding for communities downstream from the Ashokan Reservoir. Sklerov wrote in an email today:

There is already a state-approved interim protocol for operating the Ashokan Release Channel to create reservoir voids so the value of this step is unclear. Rather than filing petitions, the County Executive needs to answer one fundamental question: does he want flood protection for downstream towns like Hurley and Ulster? Considering the damage from Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee, any action to restrict the use of the channel is not only perplexing, it could also be dangerous.

Sklerov also took issue with Riverkeeper's assertion, in the press release linked above, that the city had not followed up on its obligation to study the effect of the muddy water releases on the lower Esopus:

The impact assessment that was promised is being incorporated into the upcoming Environmental Impact Statement for the use of alum in the Catskill Aqueduct in the Kensico Reservoir which is being undertaken by DEP. That step was encouraged by Riverkeeper, and representatives from the community agreed with the decision.  

We continue to meet the commitments we have made, including :

-regular meetings with the ARWG.

               - sending out a property owner survey

               - establishing a website

               - including on that website real time data for releases and spills

               - conducted over 75 site visits this past summer

               - produced an interim protocol in the wake of Hurricane Irene and Tropical storm Lee to create void space in the reservoirs

               - hired a consultant to perform the impact assessment and shared an early draft of the scope before incorporating it into the EIS

Conflict between Hein and the DEP seems to have been intensifying recently. Earlier this month, in a press release issued just before a planned public meeting with the DEP,* Hein blasted the agency for continuing to release muddy water, and issued an impossible demand: That any releases from the Ashokan into the lower Esopus be as clean as New York City drinking water.

“The residents of Ulster County should not have to choose between polluted water and flooded living rooms,” said County Executive Hein.  “The DEP should be releasing the same clarity water being sent to New York City residents.  The health of the children of Ulster County is just as important as the health of a child in Manhattan.”

The next day, the DEP pulled out of the meeting.

*Update, December 17: The DEP disputes Hein's claim that an agreement was reached to hold a public meeting this month. Sklerov writes:

Just to clarify - we never pulled out of a meeting. He asked us to attend a community wide meeting and we agreed. But there was never an agreed upon date for the meeting, despite his public comments claiming there was.

The full petition sent to the DEC today by Ulster County and Riverkeeper follows:

Riverkeeper/Ulster County petition to DEC re: DEP Ashokan releases