Mary Anne Kowalski, Environmental Champion (1946-2021)

ROMULUS, May 22, 2021 — Mary Anne was a uniquely qualified advocate for clean air, clean water and a healthy environment — the lifeblood of the Finger Lakes. Her sudden death May 13 was a body blow to the region.

From her home in Romulus, she rang warning bells that forced action, again and again. 

Faced with complex environmental challenges, Mary Anne never meekly assumed regulatory officials would play fair or even follow the law. As a former senior official at the state Department of Health, she knew government doesn’t always work that way. So she held official feet to the fire.

From her laptop, with her beloved Schnauzers Felix and Daisy at her side, she broadcast blizzards of emails to lawyers, reporters, scientists, environmental activists, sources in government — anyone who could help her latest cause. She worked the phones like a caffeinated cub reporter.

Wielding her twin superpowers — research and networking — she pressed the DOH to release health records on gas drilling, data that paved the way for the state’s fracking ban. For eight years she argued against a plan to store liquid petroleum gas (LPG) in salt caverns near Watkins Glen. The state finally denied a key permit. The Rochester developer who sought to build a giant garbage incinerator a few miles from her home met a most formidable obstacle. A new law bans waste incinerators in the Finger Lakes.

As president of Seneca Lake Pure Waters Association from 2011 to 2016, she supervised the launch of one volunteer program to monitor the water quality of lake tributaries and another to scout for harmful algal blooms. Both survive her. The HABs program has become a statewide model. 

Some at SLPWA felt she had sharp elbows. While the founders intended for the group to steer clear of controversy, Mary Anne made a beeline for it. That led to a temporary rift. But she later rejoined to signal that she wanted SLPWA to team with more confrontational groups — the Sierra Club, Seneca Lake Guardian and Committee to Preserve the Finger Lakes (CTPFL) — when practicable. 

Meanwhile, she used CTPFL as a platform to challenge state air and water permits for a bitcoin mining operation at the Greenidge power plant in Dresden, helping fuel broad alarm over Bitcoin’s carbon footprint. Would The New Yorker or The Wall Street Journal have featured the obscure upstate power plant in lengthy articles without the fact base Mary Anne worked so hard to build? Would the state Legislature be considering a three-year moratorium on energy-intensive crypto mining?

The day before her death, she was appointed to the board of the Seneca County Industrial Development Agency. “Mary Anne was so full of plans for the future,” said Rachel Treichler, a Hammondsport environmental attorney who grieved the loss of her “indefatigable curiosity, her joie de vivre.”

A memorial service is set for August 18th — what would have been her 75th birthday — in Romulus, location TBD.  A memorial scholarship is also being planned.

2 Comments

  1. An absolutely beautiful tribute by one dear friend to another. Shows a lot of heart and well done Peter. Also appreciated the SLPWA stuff.

    Sent from my iPad

    Like

  2. Thank you Mary Anne for everything you did to protect us and our region. Your relentless drive to fight for environmental justice will be greatly missed.

    Like

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