Cuomo in the Environmental Vanguard

31 Aug

Governor Cuomo’s first year in office has been marked by pragmatic success and (except for same-sex marriage legalization) low-drama victories: an on-time budget that left taxes unraised, slashed government workforce, slow balanced approach to hydrofracking and generally competent governance that has left Republicans and Democrats mostly satisfied. The aftermath of Hurricane Irene will test his emergency operation chops, but the flood waters in the North Country and Hudson Valley will eventually recede and he’ll be stronger for it.

Such a steady hand on the tiller belies an area of policy in which Cuomo is quietly making a big splash: water quality and invasive species management. The environmentalists that are howling that he is too lenient on natural gas extraction can’t complain that he is taking a mushy middle approach in picking a fight with the international shipping industry. Here, New York is acting more as California has with marijuana and clean air laws – setting a bold regulatory standard at the state level, and expecting the federal government and foreign countries to catch up to the program. Let me explain.


The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) is promulgating regulations that would require international shipping vessels to retrofit their freighters with miniature wastewater treatment plants in their ballast tanks. In the last twenty years those ballast tanks have been responsible for carting invasive species around the planet, as a Maersk ship takes on water to fill its tanks in the Crimea and dumps it in Lake Ontario while off-loading Chinese televisions in Hamilton. These invasive species – some well known like the Zebra Mussel, others less so – have remade the ecology of the Great Lakes, Saint Lawrence Seaway and Hudson River.

Cuomo and the DEC want it to stop. Whether they will be able to, or even can, is a matter of debate. The shipping industry correctly notes that the technology New York is calling for is not simply prohibitively expensive, but also currently doesn’t exist. The DEC says they are seeking to spur innovation and technology research with these regulations, and as long as the shipping industry is showing a good faith effort to develop such ship-based wastewater systems, they will be patient. Perhaps not unexpectedly, there is no crash Manhattan Project-like effort currently underway to comply. 

In this effort Cuomo has few political allies either. Most analysts agree that New York adopting these measures would effectively halt water-borne trade upstream of New York’s portion of the Saint Lawrence. In President Obama’s administration, only the regional EPA official has gotten on board with the plan, and the agency itself is developing shipping regulations that are far less stringent. Canada is howling as well, as a far greater percentage of their GDP floats in container ships down the Seaway. Even fellow Great Lakes states have not shown support. In Ohio, where the state legislature recently floated a water diversion bill that was vetoed by Republican Governor John Kasich, there is a plan to punish New York if it implements this regulation. Republican Congressman Steven LaTourette has introduced an amendment to the EPA’s Appropriation bill that would strip any state (read: New York) of all EPA funds if it implements regulations that would force freighters to clean their ballast water. All involved, including Rep. LaTourette, agree this is a simple gimmick to force the DEC to flinch. The EPA currently spends hundreds of millions of dollars a year in New York doing a myriad of clean up projects.  

Whether the change in the ecology of north-eastern rivers and lakes is good or bad is a matter of debate. That it is radically different is indisputable by all. In the Hudson River estuary, where fresh and salt water mix, zebra mussels now make up half the biomass of the entire ecosystem. Quagga mussels now number 900 trillion in Lake Michigan alone – their filtering of the plankton in the water has reduced fish stocks to the point where the last commercial fishing boat just left the port of Milwaukee, ending an industry dating from the 19th century. Closer to home, cloudy Lake Ontario is now crystal clear, swept clean by zebra mussels. Sport fish charter boat captains that I have spoken to say that the mussels have been a mixed blessing – zebra mussels provide some food and habitat for wildlife and the desirable fish are still there, but they can see the monofilament lines in the newly sparkling water and they are harder to catch. More frustrating on a hourly basis is the spiny waterflea, another newly introduced species, that clings to lines in off-yellow clumps, tangling rigging systems and requiring constant cleaning. 

What comes next?  As the DEC originally recommended these regulations during the Paterson administration, Cuomo has the political cover to back down. But should he?

12 Responses to “Cuomo in the Environmental Vanguard”

  1. Jesse August 31, 2011 at 7:47 am #

    Good stuff, thanks Brian.

    I wonder if it’d be cheaper to find a way to catch and eat the invasives…

  2. RaChaCha August 31, 2011 at 8:15 am #

    I love that Great Lakes pic! On the extreme right you can see the Luminous Star Child beholding the planet.

  3. RaChaCha August 31, 2011 at 9:05 am #

    Seriously, the Feds’ handling of all these issues is lame. Several months ago I attended a presentation downtown by the Army Corps about their ‘study’ of invasive carp — it’s not scheduled to be completed till 2015! By then, the carp will be here, knocking out hapless canoeists when they leap out of the water and gobbling up the rest of the fish. Amy Liu of the Brookings Institution told Accelerate Upstate attendees earlier this month (as I covered in my Artvoice article: ) that we need to look out for ourselves as “there are no adults left in Washington.” The impacts of these invasive species are borne by states and localities (unemployment, retraining costs for the ex-fishermen in Milwaukee, e.g.), so the states have no choice but to band together.

    And communities will continue to have to take action at the local level — for example banding together to pull water chestnuts:

    Unfortunately, I’m not seeing and end to already hard-pressed and stretched-thin states and communities being increasingly forced to step in to do what the Feds are supposed to be doing, yet seem unable or unwilling to take on.

  4. STEEL August 31, 2011 at 11:40 am #

    Hasn’t the damage already been done.  The invasive species are now the native species – it can’t be undone.

  5. Brian Castner August 31, 2011 at 12:16 pm #

    @ STEEL: these invasive species are here, but what new one’s are waiting to be introduced that would equally disruptive?

  6. Leo Wilson August 31, 2011 at 12:17 pm #

    That invasive carp species… my take is that they haven’t gotten to where schools of muskellunge will tear them up as a tasty alternative to the schools of salmon they usually eat. And, they look like a business opportunity to me. Get a boat, surround it with chain link fence, gather then up by the tons to use as fertilizer just by turning the engine on every now and then as you drift downstream. It’s gotta be better than chemical fertilizers.

  7. RaChaCha August 31, 2011 at 1:13 pm #

    I reckon that the need to wrap all them fish could be a saving grace for local newspapers 😛

  8. Leo Wilson August 31, 2011 at 1:34 pm #

    Unfortunately, I’m not seeing and end to already hard-pressed and stretched-thin states and communities being increasingly forced to step in to do what the Feds are supposed to be doing, yet seem unable or unwilling to take on.

    OK, I’m not convinced the Feds are supposed to be doing this. What gain is there in sending money to DC to have politicians scrape away their piece before sending it back only to their supporters in the states?

  9. RaChaCha August 31, 2011 at 2:30 pm #

    @Leo Fair observation, but it’s like this: there are certain things affecting the environment that are of necessity Federal responsibilities. Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, for example, because air and water go across state lines. Also, relating to the Great Lakes, there are multiple states involved + international treaty issues which are reserved to the federal government. Even inland, wholly domestic waterways still have a degree of Federal jurisdiction because of crossing state lines — especially where interstate waterborne commerce is involved. By Federal statute those responsibilities fall to the Army Corps.

    But in WNY (and elsewhere — as New Orleans/Katrina showed) the Feds are not meeting their obligations, and states, localities, and even citizens’ groups have had to step in, often at great cost. Buffalo River cleanup, Tonawanda air quality violations, threats from Asian carp and other invasives, are all areas where the Feds are falling short.

    HTH — that’s about all I can say at this point as I’ll likely be offline most of the rest of the day.

  10. Leo Wilson August 31, 2011 at 3:04 pm #

    I’d like to continue the discussion. Oh well. New Orleans is a pretty good example – the Feds had been funding upgrades to the levy system for several decades before Katrina hit. The work never got done. Had the state been responsible for funding those upgrades, would it have made a difference? That’s a sincere question, I don’t know the answer – but I have an idea that filtering those funds through Washington gave local thieves (politicians!) the cover to steal those funds. They were federal, after all – free money that could be squandered with no cost, there will always be more.

    Federal middle-men create a layer of absraction that encourages corruption. Their money has no provenance.

  11. Brian Castner September 1, 2011 at 10:21 am #

    @ Leo – On just a practical level, the feds are where the money is in our current governmental structure. Until we rewrite the tax code so states collect the majority of income and corporate taxes, and the feds get less, then we’ll be looking to the EPA for the funding solution.

  12. Leo Wilson September 2, 2011 at 4:06 pm #

    Both of your points are very solid. Man, do we need change…

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