The once-pristine Finger Lakes are under constant stress.
While they sidestepped potential disaster in 2014 when New York State banned high-volume fracking for natural gas, major threats remain: toxic algae (cyanobacteria), coal ash landfills, salt mines, stream runoff loaded agricultural waste, antiquated municipal water treatment plants, mega-landfills that pile up New York City’s garbage.
The list goes on, and it’s constantly changing.
The 11 Finger Lakes are a drinking water source for several hundred thousand people. Skaneateles supplies Syracuse. Hemlock and Canadice deliver to Rochester. Cayuga, Seneca and Keuka supply dozens of other towns. In addition, the lakes support agriculture, recreation and tourism. In recent years, the region’s wine industry has exploded in popularity — scoring the No. 1 national ranking in a 2018 USA Today poll — as its reputation has steadily improved among connoisseurs. That success fuels tourism and provides a powerful economic engine even as most of upstate New York is starved for economic activity.
And yet, the state and federal agencies charged with protecting water quality often grant broad concessions to private interests that aim to exploit the region for profit. Ditto for many local politicians, who regularly side with the exploiters, waving the vastly oversold banner of “new jobs.”
While local environmental groups try — with meager funding — to engage these deep-pocket threats, local media tend to remain on the sidelines.
I founded WaterFront in August 2017 to shed light on these increasingly consequential David-versus-Golaith battles. I’ve come to believe in the power of honest, non-conflicted journalism to help level the playing field.
And sometimes, David can win:
— TRASH INCINERATORS BANNED. On May 24, 2019, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a law that prohibits new garbage incinerators in the Finger Lakes. That action blocks a recent bid by a shadowy limited liability company from Rochester to build the largest trash-burner in the state, a $365 million behemoth in the very heart of the region.
Had it been built in Romulus, the facility would have featured a 260-foot smokestack visible from Seneca and Cayuga lakes that spewed chemicals across vineyards and farms. Its substantial toxic ash would have been carted to a local landfill. Rural roads would have had to accommodate more than 200 trucks a day filled with New York City garbage. Postings on WaterFront helped energize the local resistance that inspired the legislation the governor signed.
— GAS STORAGE DEFEATED. On July 12, 2018, local environmental groups and local wine interests won an eight-year battle over a plan to store millions of barrels of liquid petroleum gas, or LPG, in unlined salt caverns next to Seneca Lake. That day, the state Department of Environmental Conservation denied a crucial permit to Crestwood, a Houston-based natural gas partnership.
The developers (Crestwood bought out the Kansas partnership that had hatched the plan) had 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 the first in-depth articles on the proposal in 2010 (“Is Schuyler Napping?” and “The DEC Dithers,”).
Those pre-WaterFront alarms galvanized activists and spurred the creation of Seneca Lake Guardian — now all grown up into a potent lobbying, legal and organizational force on environmental issues. SLG, formerly known as Gas Free Seneca, and its experts played pivotal roles in blocking Crestwood’s industrial incursion. They were pitted against the area’s Republican Congressman and state legislators, the chairman of the Schuyler County Legislature, and even the staff of the DEC. The facts SLG presented were compelling. DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos acknowledged as much when he overruled his own staff in denying the LPG storage permit.
Other environmental battles lie ahead for the Finger Lakes. Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that government regulators will be actively engaged in fairly balancing economic development and water quality. The Trump Administration has backed off environmental protection on many fronts, including coal ash landfills, PFAS chemicals in drinking water and toxic air emissions. As their federal regulatory partners shrink back, state regulators at the DEC and the state Department of Health will become even more critical.
In light of that political reality:
— Can the Finger Lakes region take steps to escape its status as trash central for the entire state? New York’s three largest landfills lie within 30 miles of Geneva in the heart of the Finger Lakes. Their out-of-state owners accept trash from the New York City as well as other states.
— Will state regulators effectively address toxic algae, or what the DEC calls harmful algal blooms, or HABs? To do so, they’ll need to tighten lax state rules on the spreading of farm manure that drains into the lakes and require power plants to limit their massive warm water discharges. Don’t count on it.
— Will the state become more honest and direct with the public about the emerging PFAS crisis? The cancer-causing chemicals in firefighting foam and many common non-stick household products have contaminated dozens of New York waterbodies that are sources of drinking water. From their own sampling and testing, the DEC and DOH have identified 135 sites tainted with PFAS, but they’re refusing to identify them.
— What will the state do to protect the quality of municipal drinking water as climate change triggers more heavy rain events that send torrents of silty runoff into the lakes? Storms in the summer of 2018 forced Watkins Glen to impose a “do not drink” order for eight days. What’s the plan for the next big washout?
— Will the DEC continue to allow Cargill to mine salt under Cayuga Lake in the face of scientific studies that warn of a potentially catastrophic mine flood that ruins the quality of lake’s drinking water? Will Cuomo Administration officials ever require an environmental impact statement on that project to bring the public up to speed on the substantial risks? They’ve fought in court against requiring an EIS.
There are no quick fixes for these problems, and yet they need to be solved. The governor and regulators in his administration are working on them, but they are often hamstrung by political and budgetary constraints.
Fortunately, activist groups across the Finger Lakes will continue to press for environmental policies that protect water quality. I am sympathetic to their aims and share many of their goals. But I am not a member of any of them, nor beholden to any.
Water Front is a pro bono effort. I do not take advertising and I have not accepted outside financial support. I absorb the expenses required to publish it.