Clean-water funds not for bridge
Infrastructure is a topic that tends to make people’s eyes glaze over.
That might explain why Gov. Andrew Cuomo thought he could get away with using clean-water funds to help pay for a new Tappan Zee Bridge. Perhaps he thought nobody would notice what he was doing, given the general lack of interest in fixing old bridges or upgrading wastewater treatment plants.
Unfortunately for Cuomo, environmental and good-government groups have been relentless in their effort to draw attention to what’s going on.
They’ve loudly and angrily denounced what they describe as an unprecedented raid on money that is intended to make New York’s water cleaner, and accused the governor of a lack of transparency and a proper financing plan.
“Clean-water funds have never been used for a transportation project before — and we shouldn’t start now,” said Marcia Bystryn, president of the New York League of Conservation Voters.
The environmentalists and good government groups are right to complain.
If all of New York’s rivers and lakes were clean and pure, I might be more willing to support what Cuomo is trying to do.
But the state’s water is far from perfect.
Many municipalities still discharge raw sewage into local rivers on a regular basis. According to Riverkeeper, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting the Hudson River, the Capital Region’s aging sewer systems dump 1.2 billion gallons of untreated wastewater and sewage into the Hudson each year. At the Dunn Memorial Bridge in Albany, sewage-indicating bacteria levels exceeded acceptable levels more than half the time.
Other parts of the state face their own challenges: On Lake Erie, beaches are sometimes closed due to high sewage levels.
That is pretty gross, if you ask me.
Last month, the state’s Environmental Facilities Corp. approved allocating more than $511 million in water-quality loans to the Thruway Authority for the Tappan Zee Bridge project, and this week the state’s Public Authorities Control Board will also vote on the loan.
It’s possible that the Environmental Protection Agency will derail the project.
The agency is reviewing the state’s loan request, and Judith Enck, the EPA’s regional administrator for New York, is asking questions, saying that she wants to ensure that the process is transparent. In a recent letter, she asked how a number of
measures, such as building a pedestrian walkway on the new bridge and relocating a peregrine falcon nest on the Tappan Zee, will help maintain clean water.
DEC Commissioner Joseph Martens has defended the state’s loan request, saying that the money is being spent wisely. “It’s a very ‘creative’ use of the funding, which EPA has been pushing states to do for 10 years,” he said.
Nobody disputes that the Tappan Zee Bridge needs to be replaced.
What is in dispute is whether it’s appropriate to use money intended for clean water projects to help finance a big construction project. There’s a strong chance that allowing the state to misuse these funds will lead to further abuses in the future, and the original purpose of the Clean Water State Revolving Fund is distorted.
My feeling is that there is a better, more appropriate way to pay for the new Tappan Zee.
One possibility is tapping into the $3.3 billion the state recently learned it would receive in fines from the French bank BNP Paribas.
For people who care about water quality, there is some good news: In the coming years, the Capital Region’s water should improve substantially.
In January, the state and six local municipalities — Albany, Cohoes, Troy, Green Island, Rensselaer and Watervliet — agreed to a $136 million plan to upgrade their sewer systems and reduce the amount of raw sewage discharged into the Hudson. In May, the city of Schenectady and the state Department of Environmental Conservation reached an agreement aimed at improving the quality of the Mohawk River. The city is in the process of figuring out why its sewer system is sometimes overwhelmed, forcing city workers to release raw sewage into the river.
This is progress.
But it’s still kind of amazing, isn’t it, that in the year 2014 we’re still dumping raw sewage into our lakes and rivers? This was a problem when I was a kid, and it’s still a problem, decades later.
Reach Gazette columnist Sara Foss at firstname.lastname@example.org or 395-3193. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Her blog is at www.dailygazette.com/weblogs/foss.