Ulster County gives DEC an earful at Esopus hearing

Above: Highlights from testimony at a June 19 hearing held by the state DEC on the topic of New York City's releases of muddy water into the Lower Esopus Creek. Video by Andrew Wyrich.

Ulster County residents and officials packed the largest lecture hall at SUNY New Paltz on Tuesday night to voice their concern over a draft consent order between the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). The consent order, if adopted, would govern the DEP's use of a release channel to send muddy water from the Ashokan Reservoir into the Lower Esopus Creek.

Emotions ran high as residents from the region expressed their outrage to state officials over the DEP's turbid water discharges into the Lower Esopus Creek over the last 18 months -- a measure taken by the city agency to flush dirty water out of the system, and to create voids in the reservoir when flooding is expected. Currently, the city's two main tactics for dealing with turbidity in the water system are the use of the Ashokan release channel and treating the Kensico Reservoir with alum to settle particles out of the water.

The consent order drafted by the DEC imposes several conditions on the DEP, with the goal of managing reservoir releases into the Lower Esopus and decreasing the need for alum. The public has the chance to comment on it until July 16.

Ulster County Executive Michael Hein said the agreement does little to penalize the city for dumping dirty water into the creek.

“At its heart, the consent order is broken,” Hein said in his statement. “The consent order does not come close to making things right…I have enormous concerns that it is inadequate and in no way shape or form acts as a deterrent to future abuses by the NYC DEP.”

Hein said that Ulster County was not invited to negotiate the terms of the draft consent order, despite repeated requests by his office.

The consent order currently commits New York City to pay a civil penalty of $1.55 million, reduced from an original fine of $2.6 million sought by the DEC, for polluting the Lower Esopus with muddy water discharges from the Ashokan Reservoir. Hein said this fine was not close to the amount that the city should be on the hook for.

“Ulster County does not consent to this,” Hein said. “Especially because these fines do not act as a deterrent, and will not change NYC DEP actions. The fact is these fines should be in the tens of millions of dollars to bring relief to the people of Ulster County.”

Paul Rush, deputy commissioner at the DEP’s bureau of water supply, said the issues were complex, but his office will work together with everyone involved to find a solution.

“The process will allow all stakeholders the chance to comment,” Rush said. “The DEP is committed to working with all stakeholders to find solutions to the concerns that were raised.”  

Several county and town executives also spoke against the consent order, including Saugerties Town Supervisor Kelly Myers and New Paltz Village Mayor Jason West.

"DEP has selfishly utilized the Esopus Creek as a dumping ground, with complete disregard to the environmental, social, and economic impacts to downstream communities," said Myers, who blasted the city agency for not considering other alternatives to the use of alum.

After the comments from local officials, residents were given the opportunity to speak in three-minute intervals.

The Daily Freeman quoted Ulster resident Rosemarie Sullivan, who brought a water sample from the creek near her house to the hearing:

"This is our personal Exxon Valdez ... (and) it is also our Gulf (of Mexico) oil spill,” she said.

“As a result of the turbidity and increased water level, (trees) fall into the Esopus, sediment is settling and is making the bottom of the creek slimy and slippery, fishing is poor to non-existent,” Sullivan said. “The water is so muddy it does not make it at all conducive for boating or swimming.”

The Times Herald-Record quotes an angry Saugerties resident:

Michael Vallarella of Saugerties sunk his personal savings into building a new home along the Esopus over the past decade. The dead fish and muddy water now prevent Vallarella and his daughter from swimming in the creek.

"These are people with dreams and families who have worked very hard to be where they are," he said.

Residents who are upset about the muddy creek have been the loudest voices on this issue, but others at the hearing had different concerns. Morgan Turner, a property owner on the lower Esopus Creek whose house has flooded twice since 2004, said that he hoped officials would consider the needs of flood-prone areas, which get some protection from flooding from the Ashokan releases, in revising the consent order.

“I’m here to give a face to the flood,” Turner said. “I hope the muddy water doesn’t take precedence over our flooded houses. I’m hoping when we choose between flood and mud, we choose flood.”

The draft consent order is online for review by the public at the DEC's website, and comments will be accepted until July 16 at [email protected].