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July 1997
Fighting for Our Water

By Frank Eadie

 


On April 21st this year, Eliot Engel, five-term Democratic congressman from northern Bronx and Westchester, introduced a one-page bill in the House that represents a shot across the bow of the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the entrenched interests that control the U.S. multi-billion dollar drinking water supply industry. The bill, H.R. 1284, would amend the Federal Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) to allow cities and towns to ask the EPA to exempt them from its requirement that they build multi-million to billion dollar filtration plants for their surface water supplies.

    Though it began as a David versus Goliath struggle between a Bronx community and the City of New York -×acting under federal mandate to protect its citizens' health - a disagreement over the location of a filtration plant has grown into a conflict over how drinking water, peoples' health and the planet's ecosystems will, or won't, be protected in the next millennium.

A Watershed "Agreement"

New York City's drinking water comes from three different sets of reservoirs created as long ago as 1837 and completed as recently as 1960. The oldest, the Croton System, is located in Westchester and Putnam Counties and has increasingly been polluted by development. Although the City has long had the power to regulate actions that affect water quality in all three systems, it has traditionally ignored their impacts and has talked about filtering the Croton water ever since it began to deteriorate some 80 years ago.

    The passage of the SDWA changed all that. Since 1989, the City has faced federal requirements to take action. The SDWA mandates that all surface water supplies be filtered except the few that have been granted an exception. The Croton System probably would have qualified; however, the City did not apply and began planning a filtration plant instead.

    That was a fateful decision. It had two major flaws. First, City planners quickly concluded that the most obvious site for a plant was in Jerome Park Reservoir, a balancing reservoir in the northwestern Bronx about the size of the one in Central Park. The final plan was to process 450 million gallons of water per day in a plant costing $600 million. Related construction would run to $300 million and last seven to 10 years in the center of a largely middle-class academic community of nearly 50,000 people. Not surprisingly, the project was not warmly received -×so much so that in 1996 (a year from his next election) Mayor Giuliani withdrew his support for the plan and pledged to explore other sites.

    The second flaw was the failure to recognize the true role of the Croton. The heart of the water supply is the Croton Watershed. It contains balancing and storage reservoirs for the Catskill and Delaware supplies and is where water from the three systems are mixed and regulated. Thus, failure to protect this watershed threatens not just Croton water, but the entire system.

    On April 24th, the EPA sued the City for millions of dollars in penalties to force it to build a plant. While based on the SDWA, this is bad policy because:

1. All parties concerned agree that Croton water is still safe to drink.

2. Affordable filtration methods do not remove all dangerous pollutants and do not always work correctly. (In Milwaukee, more than 100,000 people got sick, and more than 100 died, due to one filtration plant malfunction).

3. While ordering filtration, the EPA also insists that the Croton Watershed be protected. Yet, the Agency approved the Giuliani-Pataki Watershed Agreement, which provides little protection for the Croton System and very little money to correct its problems.

4. Even without paying for Croton filtration or protection, New Yorkers' water rates have tripled in the past 10 years, and they went up another seven percent in June.

5. Several EPA-approved filtration alternatives are available at much lower cost.

Enter the Enviros

Motivated by the work of Robert Kennedy, Jr., and the Hudson River Keeper Fund, the local volunteers of the Sierra Club's Water and Oceans Committee had been involved in efforts to protect the City's watershed for several years when we were contacted by a member of the Jerome Park Reservoir community. Their concerns, our knowledge of the system, and the work of independent scientists who had studied the Croton's problems all convinced us that spending a billion dollars to filter water, while ignoring existing and future sources of pollution, made little sense and constituted an environmental injustice.

    A year ago, the Sierra Club was the only group outside the Bronx to oppose a filtration plant for the Croton. Today, Marian Rose, the Club's Northeastern Regional Vice President, heads a coalition of more than 20 environmental, community, housing, political and religious organizations working against the plan.

    On June 11th, this new group -×the Croton Watershed Clean Water Coalition (CWCWC) -×filed papers in federal court asking to intervene in the EPA suit against the City to block EPA's effort to compel construction of a filtration plant. It is also working in Washington to speed Congressional action on Congressman Engel's H.R. 1284, so that municipalities nationwide will be able to save millions or billions of dollars by dealing with pollution at its source. R. Frank Eadie is Chair of the Sierra Club's New York City Water and Oceans Committee and a member of the Board of Directors of the CWCWC. He is also a free-lance research consultant and lives in Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood where he has drunk Croton water for 24 years and where about one-third of his neighbors have compromised immune systems.


Some additional information.
New York Water Facts

Lack of clean water is perhaps the most serious environmental catastrophe facing the earth today. The New York City water supply is considered cleaner than most when compared to other domestic and international water systems. Below is a list of interesting (and scary) water facts. Seventy percent of our bodies are made up of water.

New York City's water system is the world's largest surface water supply system providing 1.5 billion gallons of water per day for the City.

A 1995 study reported that one out of five Americans drink tap water contaminated with lead, fecal bacteria, toxic waste and other pollutants.

Another study reported that the City of New York has particularly high levels of fecal bacteria contamination in its water supply.

Throughout the United States, approximately 10 million children get a significant level of lead in their drinking water.

To rid your faucet of high concentrations of lead, run the water for a minute or so. In the morning, flush the tap for longer, save unused water for cleaning. The largest levels of lead appear near the head of the faucet.

Never use hot water for drinking or cooking; levels of lead are higher in hot water.

Children, from the ages of six months to six years should receive annual blood test for traces of lead.

To request a free water test or to get a list of certified laboratories in your area, contact the Department of Environmental Protection Communications Center at 718-DEP-HELP. - J.H.

 


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