Looking back on 2018, Gov. Andrew Cuomo deserves a “C-” grade for protecting the environment in the Finger Lakes during his eighth year in office.
His administration certainly got some things right. It set aside $65 million to address harmful algal blooms, or HABS, and much more for upgrades to local water treatment plants.
And after nearly a decade of fence-sitting, the state Department of Environmental Conservation did finally deny a permit for a dangerous plan to store liquid petroleum gas, or LPG, in unstable salt caverns next to Seneca Lake.
Also, the governor himself declared that a giant waste incinerator proposed in Romulus does not belong in the Finger Lakes.
But on the flip side, there were major shortcomings.
Cuomo’s DEC continues to insist that fracking waste imports from Pennsylvania gas fields contain negligible levels of radioactivity despite disturbing scientific evidence to the contrary.
Meanwhile, Cargill continues to expand its gigantic salt mine under Cayuga Lake without being required to provide an environmental impact statement addressing the potential of a catastrophic mine flood.
And the DEC still allows most of the state’s mega-dairies to keep their manure-spreading programs confidential in spite of a court ruling in April that says they should be public. Farm manure is suspected to be a major contributor to the HABs crisis.
Here’s a look at 19 environmental issues that are likely to have an impact on residents of the Finger Lakes in 2019 (in no particular order):
NEW LEADERSHIP AT THE DEC
Basil Seggos will step down in early 2019 as commissioner of DEC. The governor has not named his successor. Appointed in 2015, Seggos announced his plans to resign in November.
In July, Seggos overruled DEC staff when he denied Crestwood Midstream’s bid to store LPG in salt caverns near Watkins Glen, ending a near decade-long battle between a Houston energy company and Finger Lakes communities.
Seggos has also coordinated Cuomo’s HABs initiative.
DEMOCRATS TAKE OVER KEY SENATE COMMITTEE
When Democrats regained control of the state Senate in the November election, they won the right to name the chair of the Senate’s Environmental Conservation Committee, which oversees the DEC. So a Finger Lakes Republican — Sen. Tom O’Mara (R-Big Flats) — is out, and Long Island Democrat — Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach) — is in.
O’Mara has run the committee since early 2015. A staunch supporter of fracking for natural gas before Cuomo banned it in late 2014, O’Mara has helped quash all legislative efforts to block the import of fracking waste from Pennsylvania. No surprise. His home county’s waste dump — the Chemung Landfill — is the largest importer of the lucrative and potentially radioactive drilling waste.
With Kaminsky and Democrats in control of the committee, look for a legislative push for a statewide ban on fracking waste imports.
RADIOACTIVITY QUESTIONS LINGER IN LANDFILL EXPANSION CASE
A proposed expansion of the Hakes C&D Debris Landfill in Painted Post poses the latest test for the DEC’s lax policy on monitoring radioactivity levels in imported fracking waste. The facility is owned and operated by Casella Waste Services, which also operates the Chemung Landfill.
Leachate from Hakes contains “extremely high” concentrations of byproducts of the decay of radium-226 and radon-222, according to affidavits filed by scientists in a lawsuit challenging the expansion. Those scientists recommend more thorough testing to confirm the evident hazard, but the DEC has passed on that idea. When it approved a final environmental impact statement for the expansion in December, it brushed off the evidence cited in the affidavits. The agency could issue an expansion permit at any time.
Officially, the state allows landfills like Hakes and Chemung to accept imported drill cuttings from air- and water-based drilling processes. But they are not permitted to accept fluids and flowback water from oil-based drilling because they tend to be radioactive. Yet Pennsylvania records show that distinction is often lost.
In 2011 and 2012, three Pennsylvania drillers reported shipping drilling fluids to Hakes. Earlier this year, each one of those companies found — after checking their records at Casella’s request — that they had made mistakes in listing Hakes. Pennsylvania amended its records.
But Pennsylvania’s 2018 records show Hakes receiving 16.26 tons of “unused fracturing fluid waste” from a fourth company. Another mistake? Must be, because Casella and the DEC insist that monitors at the Hakes gate effectively screen for incoming radioactive material.
ALGAL TOXINS REACH FINGER LAKES DRINKING WATER
So-called harmful algal blooms, or HABs (actually, cyanobacteria), that produce dangerous toxins have become increasingly common in the region and across the country in recent years. Health officials warn swimmers and pet-owners to avoid contaminated areas, which typically appear as wisps or swaths of green on the water’s surface.
The toxins pose a dire threat to public drinking water drawn from the Finger Lakes. In October, the state Department of Health issued its first-ever ban on local drinking water after algal toxins breached the filtering system of a water plant in Rushville, 40 miles southeast of Rochester.
Local residents were warned not to use public tap water for drinking, cooking or making ice, due to toxins in the water the town draws from Canandaigua Lake.
The toxin levels were only slightly above federal advisory thresholds, and the drinking ban was brief. But the message was clear: local water systems are vulnerable. If it can happen to Rushville, it can happen to Syracuse, which draws water from HABs-contaminated Skaneateles Lake.
Cuomo’s $65 million response focuses on 12 designated lakes — including five Finger Lakes (Conesus, Honeoye, Cayuga, Skaneateles and Owasco).
Meanwhile, certain local officials are pressing the state DOH to post online all data showing even trace amounts of algal toxins in either public drinking water or raw, pre-filtered water drawn from lakes. State officials have resisted on the grounds that trace readings can be misleading.
Identifying the causes of HABS may get political because evidence points to certain farms (manure spreading) and power plants (massive warm water discharges).
INDUSTRIAL DAIRIES (CAFOS) RUN FOR REGULATORY COVER
Phosphorus fuels the algal blooms that are spreading across the Finger Lakes and the nation. Dairies often spread cow manure, which is rich in phosphorus, on fields as fertilizer. That manure can wind up in streams in lakes, especially when the ground is frozen or when heavy rains cause heavy runoffs.
Owasco Lake provides evidence of the link between manure spills an algal blooms. Before intense bloom activity hit the lake in 2015 and 2016, a plume of manure traced to a CAFO in Scipio had colored the lake.
The state only requires about one-tenth of the state’s 5,000 dairies to obtain permits to regulate their manure-spreading. They are know as CAFOs, or concentrated animal feeding operations.
The DEC offers CAFOs two permitting options — one for farms that discharge pollutants and one for farms that don’t. Prior to a recent court challenge to the permits, roughly half of CAFOs were regulated under each type. However, that’s changed since an acting state Supreme Court justice ruled the discharge permits violate the federal Clean Water Act. First, the judge found, the DEC has been illegally allowing farmers to hire independent “planners” to certify that they comply with state law. Second, the agency allows certain manure-spreading information to held as confidential.
The no-discharge permits allow for the same soft regulation but are not subject to the judge’s order. Their action prove that CAFOs prefer regulation lite. Records show that of the 267 CAFO dairies that once had permits to discharge, 228 now claim that they no longer discharge at all so they can qualify for the permit the judge’s order doesn’t touch.
But who’s watching out for the lakes that absorb manure runoff? The Town of Auburn and state Sen. James L. Seward (R-Oneonta), among others, are calling for the DEC to close its permitting loophole. They argue for an end to confidential manure spreading reports and to the conflicted “planners” who certify them.
If legislation is introduced to require that reform, expect the New York Farm Bureau to work to derail it.
LPG STORAGE NIXED, BUT CRESTWOOD STAYS
The DEC blocked Crestwood Midstream from storing LPG in salt caverns near the southern end of Seneca Lake in July, but the Houston company still operates natural gas and LPG storage facilities as well as pipelines in the Southern Tier.
While Crestwood sold its U.S. Salt mining operations near Watkins Glen, it continues to store relatively small amounts of natural gas in adjacent caverns.
But the deadline for filing a court challenge to the DEC’s rejection of its LPG storage application passed in December. That closed the door on the company’s plan to turn the property on Seneca Lake into a major gas storage hub.
WILL NEW YORK GO A FULL DECADE WITHOUT A STATE GEOLOGIST?
The LPG project hovered in regulatory never-never land for nearly a decade, in part because the Cuomo Administration neglected to seat a “state geologist,” a statutory position with specific oversight responsibilities for underground storage and mining operations.
The last expert to hold that post, William Kelly, retired in 2010 after submitting detailed comments on the Seneca Lake LPG application. Those documents have never seen the light of day. In 2010, the DEC denied my freedom of information requests and appeals for Kelly’s analysis.
Did Kelly question whether it was safe to use the U.S. Salt caverns to store volatile hydrocarbons? The DEC took eight years to concede that it was not safe, a point independent geologists had been making for years. Maybe Kelly said it first. Maybe New York needs a state geologist.
CARGILL EXPANDS GIANT SALT MINE UNDER CAYUGA LAKE
Miners working for Minnesota-based Cargill, the nation’s largest private company, can expect to get a new escape hatch and fresh air source in 2019. The company’s Cayuga mine, nearly half a mile deep, extends for miles under the state-owned lake that supplies drinking water to tens of thousands.
A proposed new shaft in Lansing will allow the company to continue digging northward under the lake without running afoul of federal mining rules.
Independent geologists note that the rock layers separating the salt mine from the lake tend narrow to the north, raising risks of a catastrophic connection between the mine and lake. They raise the specter of the 1994 Retsof mine collapse 70 miles to the west, where geological conditions are strikingly similar.
Even so, the DEC has never required Cargill’s lucrative mining operation to prepare an environmental impact statement, which would expose it to unwanted public scrutiny.
Opponents have sued, claiming an EIS is required by law. Maybe a court will intervene. Maybe the state needs a state geologist. More likely, we’ll just wait and see how it all works out.
WILL CAYUGA POWER PLANT REPOWER WITH TRUCKED-IN GAS?
The 63-year-old Cayuga Operating Co. plant in Lansing is not needed for regional reliability, and 95 percent of similar coal-burning steam turbine plants nationwide have been retired. But a new owner proposes to convert one old coal unit to burn natural gas from Pennsylvania’s fracking operations.
That would require hauling compressed natural gas (CNG) in several dozen trucks per day across narrow county roads.
Obviously, the plan clashes with Gov. Cuomo’s goal of reducing greenhouse gases in the state by 40 percent by 2030 amid a general shift to renewable energy sources. So who would be so bold?
The answer is a company closely tied to Blackstone, the multi-billion-dollar financial behemoth that employs Bill Mulrow, the governor’s 2018 campaign chairman, as a senior official.
Will Cuomo’s DEC require that company to prepare a full environmental impact statement before issuing a new air permit? In a resolution it passed in November, the Tompkins County Legislature demands at least that much.
GREENIDGE GETS A PASS ON CLEAN WATER ACT RULES
Power plant intake pipes that draw millions of gallons of water daily to cool generators are required to have sophisticated filters to protect fish and other aquatic life. It’s federal law.
But the DEC has granted a waiver until 2022 to the new owner of the Dresden plant on Seneca Lake, a Connecticut private equity firm that contributed generously to the governor’s 2018 campaign. With the DEC’s approval, the company has converted one of four former coal units to burn natural gas and built a 4-mile pipeline to deliver it.
The DEC has also gone easy on enforcing cleanup of the plant’s coal ash landfill, which discharges toxic leachate into Keuka Outlet, a Seneca Lake tributary. While a 2015 consent agreement required the company to clean up the problem by late 2016, the state has granted several extensions, the latest one reaching into late 2019.
Even so, the DEC declared that the coal-to-gas conversion would not have an adverse impact on the environment and waived an environmental impact statement.
The Sierra Club and others sued the DEC for failing to enforce state environmental laws, but a state Supreme Court judge threw out their suit. An appeals court in Rochester had been expected to rule in that dismissal in December, but the panel’s ruling has been postponed until February at the earliest.
MASSIVE WATER WITHDRAWALS MAY NEED A CLOSER LOOK
It’s unclear how the DEC will treat future water withdrawal requests in the wake of an appeals court’s rejection in January of a permit granted to the Ravenswood electric generating station in Queens in 2014.
Ravenswood was allowed to withdraw 1.5 billion gallons of water a day from East River. It was the first permit the state issued after a 2011 law required withdrawals to be licensed. The DEC claimed it lacked any discretion under the law and was obliged to grant the permit without review under the State Environmental Quality Review Act.
The appeals court disagreed, holding that the agency can and should apply appropriate conditions to withdrawal permits. Yet the DEC said in October that it didn’t intend to add permit conditions to Ravenswood’s latest permit application, according to the Sierra Club.
Any DEC slow-walking of its legal obligation to attach conditions to water withdrawal permits could have an impact on the state’s toxic algae crisis. Power plants that withdraw massive amounts of water and then discharge it back at a much higher temperature are suspected of fueling algal blooms. That’s especially true of plants that don’t recycle their coolant waters, such as Greenidge in Dresden and the Cayuga plant in Lansing.
The problem could be virtually eliminated if the DEC were to require those plants to recycle their coolant water, but the agency has chosen not to do so.
SENECA MEADOWS FIGHTS 2025 CLOSING DATE
The state’s largest landfill, which accepts garbage from New York and at least four other northeastern states, is desperate to extend its mandatory final closing date beyond the year 2025. That decision is in the hands of the five-member Seneca Falls Town Board, and three have resisted any extension.
A nasty split on the board widened in the Fall after Town Supervisor Greg Lazzaro and Deputy Supervisor Lou Ferrara negotiated behind the scenes for a 2037 closing date. Under the deal, tweaked by Town Attorney David Lee Foster and contract attorney David Hou, the waste dump would have boosted its host community payments to the town.
Lazzaro, Ferrara, Foster and Hou, presented the deal as a fait accompli to the other three town board members in a detailed proposed resolution the three had no part in drafting. When the blindsided three — Vic Porretta, Doug Avery and Dave DeLelys — balked, Lazzaro yanked the resolution.
Days later, the three instructed Foster and Hou to begin defending the town against a landfill lawsuit that challenges a local law that set the firm 2025 closing date. The town lawyers had never bothered to file a formal legal response to the landfill complaint filed in late 2017.
The town board’s 3-2 split reflects a stark community divide. The mountainous landfill is a major local employer, but it has struggled to suppress an awful stench. Most town residents favor the firm closing date, but future local elections will test whether that sentiment holds.
DIGGING UP THE LUDOVICO SCULPTURE TRAIL
An appeals court in Rochester will decide whether the Town of Seneca Falls can use eminent domain proceedings to clear the way for a sewer line along the Ludovico Sculpture Trail on the New York Canal.
The DEC had recommended another route for the line, through a nearby neighborhood, but the town’s contract engineers, Barton & Loguidice presented a one-sided argument for the sculpture trail site.
The agenda is in dispute. A lawsuit challenging the B&L plan asserts that the sewer line is needed to carry leachate from the Seneca Meadows landfill and waste from the Del Lago Casino in Waterloo to a treatment plant in Seneca Falls.
A contract eminent domain lawyer promoting the project says, no, it’s simply a sewer system upgrade.
An eminent domain resolution drafted by the engineers and lawyers was passed 4-1 by the Seneca Falls Town Board, even though several members had never read or even laid eyes on it. The appeals court will need to sort it out.
HYDRILLA IN CAYUGA, SEA LAMPREYS IN SENECA
Hydrilla, a fast-spreading aquatic plant from Asia that has choked many Florida lakes, first popped up in Cayuga in 2011. This year new infestations at the lake’s southern end near Ithaca and east side near Aurora have been contained but remain a major threat.
Meanwhile on Seneca Lake, sea lampreys that threaten the sport fish population turned up again in the Catharine Creek and Keuka Outlet tributaries, prompting the DEC to apply larva-killing pesticides in late spring. The lampreys, first reported in the Great Lakes and Finger Lakes in the early 1980s, attach themselves to trout and salmon. The state has applied lampricides to the same tributaries several times in recent decades.
Also of concern, zebra and quagga mussels, well-established invasive species, are now seen as possible contributors to the spread of HABs, or cyanobacteria. Apparently the algae-gobbling mussels prefer to consume benign species rather than the dangerous algae look-alikes. Scientists suspect that may be giving the toxin-producing cyanobacteria a competitive edge.
MERCURY IN FINGER LAKES FISH
As many as one in four fish in the Finger Lakes may contain mercury above levels deemed safe.
Contamination varies by fish species and by lake. Walleye and Owasco Lake are at the high end. In Canandaigua Lake, where the Finger Lakes Mercury Project has concentrated much of its testing, trout and yellow perch tend to be less tainted than largemouth bass.
Air emissions from coal-fired power plants are blamed for roughly half the mercury that wafts into the lakes. Once mercury gets there, bacteria can alter it into methylmercury, which is absorbed by the smallest aquatic organisms. They, in turn, are consumed by fish higher up the food chain.
The state DOH recommends limits on eating certain types of Finger Lakes fish to minimize mercury exposure.
SCHUYLER COUNTY WATER TREATMENT PLANT
Construction is due to start in February on a $32 million wastewater treatment plant that will replace outdated facilities now serving Watkins Glen and Montour Falls.
Preparation of the site on Catharine Creek is done. A pair of adult eagles remain in the nest nearby, tending a pair of eaglets. Will construction noise and commotion drive them off? The plant is scheduled to begin operating in late 2019.
But even with the new plant, Watkins Glen and towns similarly situated will remain highly vulnerable to storms that dump many inches of rain in a few hours. The torrents that gush into Seneca Lake, the source of the town’s tap water, cause dangerous turbidity that overwhelms even modern treatment plants.
In August, floods forced Watkins Glen officials to impose a boil-water order for nine days. They also had to send the rock group Phish packing, washing away a highly anticipated music festival. Forecasters say many more intense gully-washers will come.
LEAD STILL FLIES AT LANSING GUN CLUB
The Lansing Rod and Gun Club is clearing the way for a new shooting range that will replace old ranges that exposed Salmon Creek, a Cayuga Lake tributary, and nearby wetlands to showers of lead shot.
A consent order the club signed with the federal Environmental Protection Agency in September 2016 required a cease fire for all lead shot over the creek and wetlands, as well as a cleanup of the hazardous pellets. But the EPA isn’t enforcing the order, and the DEC isn’t butting in
That has frustrated gun club neighbors and others in the community, who are demanding that local officials do a proper analysis of the new lines of fire. So far, federal, state and local officials have all passed the buck. No one seems eager to mess with entitled gun owners.
WILL THE FINGER LAKES GET A GIANT NEW WASTE INCINERATOR?
Plans to build the state’s largest garbage incinerator at the former Seneca Army Depot in Romulus dodged a legislative bullet earlier this election year.
The state Senate passed a bill that would have banned the permitting of such a facility under Article 10 of state Public Service Law. Plenty of votes were available in the state Assembly to assure passage. But for reasons that remain murky, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie never called the incinerator-killing bill for a vote.
The backers and big money behind the $365 million Romulus project remain a mystery. The Rochester LLC that proposed it, Circular enerG, is only two years old and claims no experience in either waste disposal or energy production.
The vast majority of the waste to be burned there would come from New York City, not the Finger Lakes. The facility would be built on propert owned by a company closely tied to a major contributor to Gov. Cuomo. So where does the governor stand on the issue?
Under pressure from his Democratic primary opponent last spring, Cuomo issued a written statement saying the proposed incinerator location was “not appropriate.” But only days later, he sidestepped any mention of the issue at the ceremonial opening of a welcome center in Geneva, an anti-incinerator hotbed 12 miles away.
Now that he’s been reelected to his third term, the balance of political pressure on Cuomo could shift back toward helping New York City cope with its garbage disposal challenges. Might that lead to a Finger Lakes incinerator by default.
In any case, the state energy facility siting board will face intense local pressure to resist issuing a permit.
HOW FAR HAS PFOA CONTAMINATION MIGRATED AT SENECA DEPOT?
The U.S. Army plans a new investigation this spring into suspected underground plumes of the potent carcinogens PFOA and PFOS near the proposed incinerator site at the former Seneca Depot. Recent groundwater tests at three depot sites showed contamination levels of up to 1,327 times a federal advisory health limit (or more than 5,000 times recently announced new state limits).
PFOA and PFOS are among a class of chemicals that were once widely used in making non-stick pots and pans and stain-resistant carpets. They are also a component in fire-fighting foam, the suspected source of the contamination in Romulus. The Department of Defense discovered the pollution while investigating 664 military sites that used fire-fighting foams.
Two years ago, PFOA and PFOS pollution created a political firestorm in Albany after they turned up in drinking water in Hoosick Falls, about 30 miles northeast of the state capital.
The Hoosick Falls case prompted the Legislature to require the governor to appoint a Drinking Water Quality Council in order to set new state water pollution standards within a year.
Although it missed its deadline by a few weeks, the council eventually set a PFOA/PFOS threshold of 20 parts per trillion, compared to the federal advisory limit of 70 ppt.
If the Seneca Depot plumes are at all widespread, they could affect former depot property now used or designated for farming. Also, new sewer lines have been proposed through property that may be contaminated.
|Peter Mantius is founder of the Water Front, an all-digital publication dedicated to providing coverage of important environmental politics in the Finger Lakes. He brings decades of reporting and editorial experience to his storytelling, which includes frequent deep-dives into local, and regional issues. Contact him by clicking here or dropping him a line at [email protected].