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Gannett Suburban Newspapers

Environmentalists criticize NYC water management
By Tom Andersen

The region's drinking water is threatened by government mismanagement and failure to adequately enforce anti-pollution laws, according to a report by an environmental organization.

The New York City Department of Environmental Protection, which operates the vast water supply system that serves the city, Westchester County and part of Putnam County, is organized in a way that makes protection of the city's reservoirs almost impossible, according to the report.

The 62-page report was written by attorney Robert F. Kennedy Jr. for the Hudson Riverkeeper Fund, an environmental group based in Garrison, and was made available to Gannett Suburban Newspapers.

It charges that the DEP is run by managers who have frequently thwarted efforts by their own law enforcement division to track down and prosecute polluters of the water supply.

Charles Sturcken, the DEP's chief of staff, said yesterday that he was sure he would be able to rebut the report when he sees it. But he declined to comment on its specific charges.

"I really don't want to comment until this report is something tangible," he said. "I haven't seen it."

The bottom line, Kennedy said yesterday, is that the city's antagonism toward protecting the watershed is destined to undermine the landmark watershed protection measures agreed to last year, which would force the city to build a huge water treatment plant estimated to cost up to $10 billion.

"It's the (DEP's) institutional culture that is going to hinder its ability to enforce its own regulations and the environmental law," Kennedy said.

The draft report, titled "A Culture of Mismanagement," was compiled by Kennedy, Riverkeeper's chief prosecuting attorney; Riverkeeper attorney David Gordon; and other Riverkeeper staff.

Their sources include DEP staff, as well as lawsuits they and others have brought against the city.

Kennedy said he was working on revisions that were likely to make the final report more critical than the draft. He said the final version would be made public in December.

Ingrained conflicts

Kennedy's criticism of the DEP is significant because, while he has criticized the agency before, he was also one of the negotiators of the complicated watershed agreement, which was signed last year. When city, state and local officials gathered to announce the agreement, Kennedy stood alongside Gov. George Pataki to offer his enthusiastic support for the plan.

Kennedy said he first brought the report's criticisms to the attention of city officials last year.

"We thought that it was fair to give the city a chance to recreate the DEP, which they assured us they were in the process of doing," he said.

Some reforms have been made, Kennedy said -- chiefly a strengthening of the DEP's law enforcement division. A year ago, the city had one officer patrolling 2,000 square miles of watershed. Two others have since been added, he said.

But, Kennedy said, the problems have overwhelmed the efforts at reform and threaten to make the watershed protection plan meaningless.

The report cites what it calls the DEP's "dismal enforcement history" and says it stems from a key administrative error: The people who operate and manage the water supply system supervise the people who prevent pollution and enforce anti-pollution laws.

This is a "made-to-order conflict," according to the report, because the water system's operators and managers oversee the 112 sewage treatment plants in the watershed or are responsible for ensuring that other treatment plant operators comply with pollution regulations. They also work closely with developers in devising new sewage disposal systems, according to the report.

The conflict arises because the operators and managers oversee the officers and inspectors who enforce the regulations -- that is, they are responsible for enforcing the law against their bosses.

"The failure to recognize and cure that error ... will doom the agency to a weak enforcement and pollution prevention role at the very moment that a strong enforcement agency is needed in the watershed," the report said.

The few staff people qualified to make environmental protection decisions have been ostracized and demoralized, according to the report.

"Their determinations on water quality issues are frequently overridden by less qualified operational engineers or non-engineers," the report said, "and they are frequently removed from project reviews."

Qualifications questioned.

Another key problem, according to the report, is that unqualified people are holding key positions.

When told yesterday of the criticisms against individual employees, Sturcken, the chief of staff, said he could not comment until he saw the report.

The report characterizes Tom Hook, who heads the DEP's Division of Operations and Engineering, and Edwin Polese, who oversees the water supply in the Catskills, as unqualified for their positions.

Hook "has no background or education in sewage treatment plant operations," the report said.

Polese "has no qualifications to lead or manage a division responsible for sewage treatment plant inspections," it said.

Neither has experience reviewing development projects under the the State Environmental Quality Review Act, according to the report.

The report charges that Lynn Sadoski, who oversees the water supply in Westchester and Putnam, "is well-known for her hostility toward the (DEP) environmental enforcement units."

Before Sadoski's unit inspects the watershed's sewage plants, she or her staff routinely give plant operators up to a week's notice of the inspection, according to the report.

"Such calls give operators time to get their plants in order, thereby creating an inaccurate picture of watershed sewage treatment plant compliance," the report said.

Sadoski has also continued a DEP practice of using the department's own testing methods -- rather than methods prescribed by the federal Clean Water Act -- to determine if sewage plants are complying with their pollution control permits, according to the report. However, the city's testing methods are inadmissible in Clean Water Act court cases.

"There is no good rationale for this absurd practice," the Riverkeeper report said.

The report criticizes William Stasiuk, who left the New York state Department of Health last year to oversee the DEP's bureau of water supply. He halted an investigation of Danbury Pharmacal, a drug manufacturer in Carmel, by DEP Officer Ron Gatto, according to the report.

"On May 23, 1996, Gatto was ordered to drop his police investigation of Danbury Pharmacal and turn it over to the managing engineers," the report said. "Gatto was subsequently also ordered to drop his investigation of Yonkers Contracting." The company has a city contract to rebuild the Cross River dam. It was suspected of allowing material from the construction site to pollute the Muscoot Reservoir.

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