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Riverdale Press, January 28, 1999, page A1

Filter foes sue to force policy change


Westchester and Bronx activists who contend the Croton watershed can be protected from pollution have filed suit against federal, state and city environmental agencies, charging that all three violated federal law by requiring New York City to filter Croton drink-ing water.

The Croton Watershed Clean Water Coalition of local grassroots environmental groups, including the Friends of Jerome Park Reservoir and the Bronx Council for Environmental Quality, has asked the federal district court to order a full environmental study of filtration avoidance for the Croton system.

In the suit filed on Jan. 13 against the fed-eral Environmental Protection Agency, the state Department of Health and the city Department of Environmental Protection, the organization contends’ that the agencies’ deci-sion to build a filtration plant amounted to donning blinders that prevented them from examining the alternatives.

19th-century technology

“Filtration is an industrial process that- is a bridge to the 19th century,” wrote Riverdalian John Klotz, the group’s attorney, in a message posted on the World Wide Web. “CWCWC seeks an environmental solution through watershed protection—a true bridge to the 21st century”

Last spring, the EPA won a federal court order setting a strict timetable for construction of a filtration plant. In November, after a protracted study of eight potential sites for the plant, the city chose Mosholu Golf Course, a 28-acre parcel of land in the southeast corner of Van Cortlandt Park.

The Clean Water Coalition failed in an attempt to become a party to the EPAs suit. The current suit, filed just as the six-year statute of limitations expired on the 1993 agreement between the state and the city to filter the water, is the group’s last-ditch attempt to force the government agencies back to square one.

To filter or not to filter

‘They need to go back to the original question whether to filter or not to filter,” said Karen Argenti, of the Friends of Jerome Park Reservoir, who rs a plaintiff in the suit, as sec-retary of the Clean Water Coalition.

The group’s case is not a simple one, and challenges the decisions made by the three
agencies going back to that 1993 stipulation. It calls into question the agencies’ interpretation of the Surface Drinking Water Act, the federal law that addresses the filtration of open reser-voir systems.

On the broadest level, the group maintains that the EPA, which had full regulatory control of the Croton watershed until handing it over to 4 the state in 1997, did not comply fully with the requirements of the law by failing to hold a pub-lic hearing on filtration. The state also should have held a public hearing when it entered its 1993 agreement with the city to filter.
The suit also claims that the Croton water-shed should have been granted a waiver from the federal filtration requirements.

“At no time has it been determined that the Croton watershed did not in fact meet the criteria for filtration avoidance,” the legal brief states.

The 1989 law requiring filtration allows a system to escape filtration if the water fails below specified levels of fecal coliform concentration and turbidity. The Croton system is cur-rently clean enough to avoid filtration. However, officials contend that it is doomed to contamination by develop-ment in Westchester and Putnam counties.

EPA regional administrator Jeanne Fox reiterated the argument most recently in an op-ed article in the Jan. 14 Norwood News. Writing that “the level of urban development . . . has produced two decades of declining water quality,” she said the Croton was left with “no margin of safety.”

The Clean Water Coalition brief quotes extensively from a 1992 DEP study on water quality, which admits that the city was “lacking both the appropriate staff and the political will to assert its authority to protect the watershed,” and, “consequently, though the quality of the Croton water is cur-rently high and basically meets the avoidance criteria, the foreseeable cumulative impact of the byproducts of development... has forced the City to prepare to filter Croton water.”

But the coalition contends that the EPA, not the city, should have been protecting the watershed.
“It was up to the federal govern-ment to look at the system,” said Ms. Argenti. ‘The law says you have to meet the criteria, end of story. The number of people in the watershed is not a criteria.”
Coalition members worry, howev-er, that as the city continues to go for-ward with plans for the filtration plant at the Mosholu Golf Course, the watershed itself will continue to degrade. The DEP recently announced that it will suspend meetings of the group of activists studying filtration alternatives.

“One of the basic problems we face is non-filtration may die the death of 1,000 cuts,” said Mr. Klotz. ‘The option will close as a practical matter if the city does not take action before harm is done.”

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