Watershed pact between DEC and DEP draws local ire

The latest chapter in the ongoing saga of the muddy lower Esopus is being written -- and officials in Ulster County are clamoring to be more than just a footnote in it.

On May 23, the state Department of Environmental Conservation announced that they had hammered out a deal with the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, called a "draft consent order," that would govern the release of silt-laden water into the lower Esopus.

Under the draft consent order, whose main points are summarized on the DEC's website, the city will have to pay a fine 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.

Of that $1.55 million, $500,000 would not have to be paid if the city met its deadlines for infrastructure that would allow the city to control turbidity in its water system without the use of alum in the Kensico Reservoir. At the moment, the use of alum is one of two main methods the DEP uses to control turbidity, along with the release of turbid water into the Lower Esopus via the Ashokan release channel.

An additional $950,000 of the fine would go in escrow to the state Environmental Facilities Corporation to fund environmental projects:

  • $350,000 for two stream gauges on the Lower Esopus;
  • $200,000 to develop a stream management plan for the Lower Esopus;
  • $330,000 to implement the recommendations of the Lower Esopus stream management plan;
  • $60,000 for a technical review consultant to advise the Ashokan Releases Working Group; and
  • $10,000 for fish stocking in the Lower Esopus.

The draft consent order would also compel the city to fund two turbidity-reducing projects in the Upper Esopus at $750,000.

The document is open to public comment until July 2, and could be revised before it goes into effect.

The reaction from locals, who did not have a seat at the negotiation table, was swift and furious. Ulster County executive Mike Hein told the Watershed Post that the order would be of little use to locals who have been harmed by the city's muddy water releases.

"The bottom line here is, there is no short-term relief included in this for residents netagively impacted by the actions of the DEP," he said. "Ulster County still is in a position in which we must fight an uphill battle against a large bureaucracy."

Hein also said that much of the action required by the draft consent order is already required of the city under their Filtration Avoidance Determination (FAD) permit from the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

"The funding that has been included in this, in the form of an environmental fund that they created, is woefully inadequate to accomplish substantive, necessary change, let alone make up for the damage that has been cause by years of DEP practices," Hein said. "They have not dealt with the turbidity issue to a degree significantly greater than is required of them anyway under the FAD."

The Daily Freeman quoted several local officials who were critical of the plan, including state senator John Bonacic:

“I don’t think (the consent order and protocol) went far enough, to tell you the truth,” said Bonacic, R-Mount Hope.

“This is all spin by DEP and DEC to cover their you-know-what for what has happened,” the senator said. “The DEC, which is in charge of protecting the quality of our water statewide, (is) very strict when it comes to penalties ... if you put your toe in one of these streams because you might hurt the fish.”

The Freeman also spoke to Saugerties supervisor Kelly Myers, who minced no words in blasting the DEC and DEP for holding negotiations behind closed doors:

“From my perspective, that man must be on another planet,” she said of [DEP commissioner Carter] Strickland. “He must be having delusions or something. Negotiating behind the scene with DEC and not including local partners is truly offensive. Not being part of that conversation, not knowing what’s going on, not having a say in it, not having a look at any of the documents before they go out to the public, having it all imposed upon us, is tremendously disrespectful to everyone locally.”

The Shawangunk Journal quoted Ulster County legislator Terry Bernardo, who took similar issue with the negotiation process:

"It is never a good sign when an Albany government official is negotiating with a New York City government official about water in Ulster County," she said in a statement she released in reaction to the May 23 announcement about the consent order. In addition to requiring New York City to "pay direct economic damages to Ulster County's tourism industry," Bernardo called for Ulster County, not the City of New York, to prepare the required Environmental Impact Statement regarding the negotiated settlement. "We should be given the funds by the DEP to review the EIS or better yet, be given the resources to prepare the EIS ourselves and let DEP react to our findings, instead of us having to react to theirs."

News of the draft consent order made it to the New York Times's Green blog, where it was apparently not a hot topic: No Times readers commented on the story.

Ulster County residents will have the chance to speak up about the draft consent order on June 19, when it will be the topic of a public hearing at SUNY New Paltz. The hearing will be held from 6pm to 8pm in the Lecture Center, Room 100.