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.