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, Bitcoin mining, 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 blocked 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 farms and vineyards. 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,” (Other pre-2017 articles I wrote for Odessafile.com, DCBureau.org and the Corning Leader are posted under the “Old Stories” tab on WaterFront)
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 against water and air quality. The Trump Administration set federal environmental protection back on many fronts, including coal ash landfills, PFAS chemicals in drinking water and toxic air emissions. The Biden Administration strives to reverse the Trump effect, but state regulators at the DEC and the state Department of Health remain critically important.
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. The DEC has discontinued funding for tests of the toxicity of suspected HABs reported by volunteers. Ergo, less data.
— Will the state Department of Health 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 don’t post those results or provide easy public access.
— 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.
— How will the DEC handle Greenidge Generation’s application to renew its Title V air permit as it plans a major expansion of its energy-intensive Bitcoin mining operation in Dresden? How will the agency address the spike in greenhouse gas emissions that come from running the plant 24/7 instead of intermittently? The state’s ambitious climate goals may be riding on the agency’s ruling.
Most of these threats can’t be addressed by quick fixes, 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 and air quality. I am sympathetic to their aims and share many of their goals. But I am not beholden to any of them.
My posts on Water Front are based on in-depth reporting. While they may 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 firstname.lastname@example.org, and let’s hash it out.
While I sometimes write for other outlets, such as New York Focus, for compensation, Water Front is a pro bono effort. The outside stories may be posted on Water Front by permission from the outlet. I do not take advertising on the blog, and I have not accepted outside financial support for it. I absorb all expenses required to publish it. Many articles posted on Water Front are reprinted by my permission on FingerLakes1. FL1 imbeds ads in those reprinted stories, but I do not share the revenue from them.