About Water Front by Peter Mantius

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The once-pristine Finger Lakes are under stress. While they dodged a bullet in 2014 when the state banned high-volume fracking for natural gas, major threats remain: invasive species, toxic algae (cyanobacteria), landfills and incinerators for New York City’s garbage, stream runoff carrying agricultural and munitions wastes, coal ash landfills, salt mines. The list goes on.

A drinking water source for hundreds of thousands, the 11 Finger Lakes have also emerged as one of upstate New York’s most powerful economic engines. They are home to a flourishing wine and tourism industry even as most of upstate New York is starved for economic activity.

And yet, the state and federal agencies charged with protecting the lakes often side with private interests that seek to exploit the region for profit. Ditto for many local politicians.

While local environmental groups try— with meager funding — to engage these deep-pocket threats, local media tend to remain on the sidelines. My goal for Water Front is to shed more light on these increasingly consequential David-versus-Golaith battles. I’ve come to believe in hard-core journalism and its power to level the playing field.

Sometimes, David can win. 

That happened on July 12, 2018, after an eight-year fight over a plan to store millions of barrels of liquid petroleum gas, or LPG, in unlined salt caverns next to Seneca Lake. That was the day the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation denied a crucial permit to Crestwood, a Houston-based natural gas partnership.

The developers (Crestwood bought out a Kansas partnership that had hatched the plan) quietly built ties with local politicians and state regulators while opting for a stealth approach within the Schuyler County communities of Reading and Watkins Glen.

I wrote two articles for a local website in 2010 that were the first in-depth reports on the project. The first, “Is Schuyler Napping?” sounded the alarm. The second, “The DEC Dithers,” questioned why state regulations had failed to order an environmental impact statement for such a substantial lakeside project. 

In November 2010, the state finally ordered the EIS. That led to public hearings, which galvanized a coalition of Finger Lakes activists, business owners, pro bono lawyers and scientists who waged an eight-year legal and PR battle to block the industrial incursion. They were pitted against the area’s Republican Congressman, the chairman of the Schuyler County Legislature, and even the staff of the DEC. 

The facts brought forward by the environmental coalition ultimately defeated the project. DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos acknowledged as much when he overruled his own staff in denying the LPG storage permit.

There are other big battles ahead for the Finger Lakes. Can the region avoid being designated as trash central for the entire state? Will state regulators, who often cozy up to corporate applicants, effectively address toxic algae by requiring power plants to limit their massive warm water discharges into the lakes?

New York’s three largest landfills lie within 30 miles of Geneva, the heart of the Finger Lakes. Now a shadowy company that refuses to detail its ownership proposes to build the largest trash incinerator in the state between Seneca and Cayuga lakes — to turn a profit on garbage hauled from New York City. Virtually every entity near the Romulus site opposes the plan. But the company that owns the site is closely affiliated with an elite campaign contributor to Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

The battle lines are drawn — again.

About Peter Mantius

I began writing about environmental issues in the Finger Lakes in 2009, amid the first skirmishes over fracking. I brought to it more than 30 years of experience and perspective from a journalism career focused on financial, legal and political issues in Atlanta, New York City and Hartford, CT.

Between 2010 and 2016, I wrote about 50 investigative stories related to the Finger Lakes for DCBureau.org, a non-profit website based in Washington, D.C. I also wrote more than a dozen environmental columns for Odessafile.com (a local website in Schuyler County, NY) and two dozen OP-ED opinion columns for the Corning Leader newspaper, mostly in 2012 and 2013 at the height of the fracking battles. I’ve reposted copies of all those wayward DCBureau, OdessaFile and Corning Leader stories on Water Front.

I have a BA in journalism from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (1974) and a MA in journalism from Ohio State University (1991). I split up my undergraduate years by enlisting in the U.S. Marine Corps toward the end of the Viet Nam war. After UNC, I was lucky to land a job at The Winston-Salem Journal, which had recently won the Pulitzer Public Service award (1971).

In 1983, I left North Carolina for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where I covered banking, insurance, courts and politics for for 17 years. That newspaper nominated me for the Pulitzer Prize in 1985, 1989 and 1992, but I went 0-3. I did win a first place regional reporting award from the Society of Professional Journalists as well as first place awards from the Associated Press, UPI and others.

My Pulitzer-nominated 1992 investigation into an international bank fraud led me to publish the non-fiction book Shell Game (St. Martin’s Press, 1995). It turns out that an obscure Atlanta branch of an Italian government-owned bank was Saddam Hussein’s primary financial channel in the West, a source for billions of dollars in secret and illegal loans for Iraqi missile, chemical and nuclear programs. The book won favorable reviews from BooklistLibrary JournalThe Nation and The New York Times, which called it “smart, tenacious and uncompromised.” The National Law Journal published an excerpt, and for a while the Atlanta Public library had trouble hanging onto its copies.

At the height of the tech boom in early 2000, I left Atlanta for New York City and a job at The Daily Deal (now known as The Deal), a newspaper/website covering Wall Street and financial transactions worldwide. I was a senior editor in charge of reporters in Washington (antitrust regulation) and San Francisco (Silicon Valley). That great job came with an horrendous round-trip daily commute of more than four hours, so I bailed in early 2001 to become the editor of Long Island Business News, a weekly newspaper/daily website that I ran for nearly three years.

I’ve been married to Laura, for 46 years, most of them glorious. We have three grown kids and eight-grandchildren, ranging in age from one year to 21 (see Schuyler, 4, with me, above). After tagging along after me on journalism-driven moves for decades, Laura decided in 2004 that it was time for us to settle in the Finger Lakes, where her family has deep roots. Fair enough.

Except for my eventful 11-month stint as the editor of The Hartford Business Journal (during the buildup to the 2008 financial crisis), we’ve lived within walking distance of Seneca Lake ever since.

My posts on Water Front are based on in-depth reporting. While they often include my opinions, I strive to be as fair as possible to all parties involved. Have I written something you know to be incorrect or believe to be unfair?

Please email me at [email protected], and let’s hash it out.

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