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Al0 THE RIVERDALE PRESS-Thursday, August 28, 1997

Editorial comment

The city's secret filtration deal

For years New York City has known that drinking water from the Croton watershed doesn't need to be filtered. Why, then, has it agreed to filter it, and why isn't it fighting harder to keep the water clean?

As he conducted a tour of the Jerome Park Reservoir last summer during one of those days when the city allowed residents to see what it might look like as part of Park, the president of the Amalgamated Houses mused that the reservoir's fate was one of those only-in-New-York-City issues that might never go away but never be resolved.

Not if the feds have their way.

If the Environmental Protection Agency prevails in its law suit against the city, the next mayor will barely have time for a dance or two at the inauguration party before having to decide where a filtration plant will be built.

A secret schedule devised by the EPA and unwittingly handed to opponents of filtration by the State Department of Health calls for land use review hearings to begin in 1998, a few months from now.

The residents of Riverdale, Van Cortlandt Village and Kingsbridge Heights, Norwood, and Westchester have done a remarkable job of coalition building and consciousness raising since the specter of a gigantic plant first presented itself. But the coalition is held by fragile threads. Once City Hall chooses a site, some of those threads are bound to snap, depending on who is dismayed and who is relieved by the choice.

It is no secret that community leaders who live near the reservoir would rather have the plant in Van Cortlandt Park than in the reservoir, while park advocates are dead-set against destroying recreational opportunities in the Alan Shandler section of Van Cortlandt or the forested tranquillity of the Croton Aqueduct Trail. In Yorktown Heights, if push comes to shove, they'd rather see the plant in the Bronx.

What holds the coalition of these disparate interests together is the conviction that filtration can be avoided altogether, if the city holds firm with the activists in opposing the federal government

Just months ago, that claim seemed to be comprised of equal parts wishful thinking and pie in sky. But court papers filed on behalf of the Croton Watershed Clean Water Coalition suggest otherwise.

According to a memorandum submitted to the federal court last month by Riverdalian John Klotz, the attorney arguing on behalf of the citizens' effort to intervene in the EPA's suit against the city, the city concluded five years ago that Croton water meets all federal health and safety standards.

In 1991, Albert Appleton, then commissioner of the city Department of Environmental Protection told local opponents of the filtration plant, "Croton water currently meets the avoidance criteria." He added, however, that "the margin is small and we clearly cannot guarantee that we would meet the criteria in even the short term future. We have now initiated a full scale review of what might be required to attain guaranteed long term compliance with the avoidance criteria and whether we would have any realistic hope of doing so."

When the promised review was completed in November, 1992, however, DEP kept its conclusions to itself. Anti-filtration activist Karen Argenti only recently obtained a copy. The review concluded that "the quality of Croton water is currently high and basically meets the avoidance criteria," but "the foreseeable cumulative impact of the byproducts of development - runoffs from roads and lawns, discharges from sewage treatment plants and failed septics - has forced the City to prepare to filter Croton water."

The city presumably failed to share this analysis with its citizens for two reasons: first, it is a confession of impotence; and second, a month before reaching it, the city had quietly signed a promise to filter the Croton water.

The kernel of hope in this husk of ineptitude and prevarication is that the water remains safely drinkable. If the EPA juggernaut can be halted, there is still a chance that measures can be taken to keep it that way naturally, rather than with chemical treatment that requires building a massive industrial plant in a residential community or a park.

Congressman Eliot Engel has proposed HR 1284 to give localities a new opportunity to apply to the EPA for filtration avoidance. His colleague, Sue Kelly, who represents northern Westchester in the Congress, backs the measure.

But New York City also has to be persuaded to pay more than lip-service to the possibility of avoiding filtration. Doing so would mean a complex set of agreements and regulations in Westchester and Putnam counties, a battle against development and cars that no previous city administration has been wilting to undertake.

If the hope remains slim, it remains real. This is a fight worth fighting, a fight that can keep Riverdale and Kingsbridge Heights, Westchester and the Bronx united. It is a fight for worthiest of goals. Avoiding filtration, after all, means keeping our drinking. water clean.

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