Tag Archives: New York State Department of Environmental Conservation

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?