A few weeks ago, a protracted effort to access public records in Albany and at Hudson’s City Hall finally revealed what was only suspected before now. Nearly five years ago, the New York State DEC signed off on a “Long Term Control Plan” for the City of Hudson which completely left out federally-required public participation.
According to the DEC, Hudson’s Long Term Control Plan (LTCP), which was first submitted in 2003, was approved by the state’s Division of Water in 2009.
Despite the city’s documented promises to the state to establish a website for the purpose and to hold public meetings, there is no evidence that the public was ever aware of the plan’s existence while in development, and neither the public nor its representatives laid eyes on the finished document before 2014.
In breach of federal policy, the public played no part in deliberations concerning the future of the city’s combined sewer system.
The City of Hudson is now seeking a $600,000 Community Development Block Grant in order to “undertake sewer separation activities.” In the end it was only the rules of grant-getting which moved the city to hold a Public Hearing on the matter.
On May 29th, after 11 years of utter disregard for a public which had no idea it was being excluded, the city opened the floor to residents for the first time, ostensibly to hear their opinions on the issue.
The sole public comment at that hearing is fleshed out in the following.
COMBINED SEWER OVERFLOWS (CSOs)
A combined sewer is a wastewater collection system designed to carry storm water (surface drainage from rainfall or snowmelt) and sanitary sewage (domestic, commercial, and industrial wastewater) in a single pipe to a waste water treatment facility.
In wet-weather conditions, the waste flow can temporarily exceed the storage capacity of such systems, and the combined excess waste is then discharged into the environment through designated outfalls under the SPDES permitting program. On these rare occasions, Hudson’s seven SPDES outfalls shunt untreated waste water into the city’s two wetlands, to Underhill Pond, and into the Hudson River. (The sign in the banner above marks the outfall at Broad Street.)
Hudson isn’t unusual for its combined sewer system, although the State of New York does have a large number of the nation’s remaining combined sewer overflows (CSOs).
Under the Clean Water Act, the Environmental Protection Agency requires all municipalities with these archaic systems to develop and implement LTCPs in order to better manage – or even to terminate – these occasional overflows into the nation’s waters.
TWO SIDES TO ONE COIN
The EPA ranks urban runoff and storm-sewer discharges as the second most prevalent source of water quality impairment in the nation’s estuaries.
Although the pathogens associated with sanitary sewage are a nasty component of water pollution, studies have shown that storm water alone can be nearly as contaminated as the sewage/stormwater mixtures.
Unfiltered runoff from developed areas frequently carries many of the following contaminants: zinc, cadmium, copper, chromium, arsenic, lead, sodium chloride, calcium chloride, nitrogen, phosphorous, pesticides, oil, gasoline, grease, soil, silt, oxygen-demanding plant detritus, viruses and bacteria (from animal waste).
But for municipalities planning to separate their sewer systems, an irresistible public relations strategy plays up the obvious environmental improvements only by suppressing the environmental hazards of unfiltered contaminants in the increased runoff stream.
Fortunately there are many alternatives which can mitigate the negative consequences of dumping unfiltered runoff into natural water bodies.
ADVOCACY OR BANALITY
As with SEQR reviews, a consideration of alternatives in an LTCP invariably relies on public vigilance. Where runoff is a concern, whether it’s green infrastructure, concern for receiving water bodies and aquatic biota, or nonstructural means towards cleaner outcomes (e.g., zoning), the public has an irreplaceable role in the application of the federal policies.
But when the public is silenced – as is so often the case in Hudson – it’s almost impossible to introduce these alternatives afterwards. In cases like ours, where an LTCP is predominantly a justification for future engineering projects, the championing of green infrastructure only after an LTCP has been approved is a banality, if not a lost cause.
If the State of New York is so dysfunctional that it can’t recognize the environmental benefits of the federal policies, and if the EPA is prepared to relinquish its supervisory role over states that regulate CSOs on its behalf, then the public’s mere praise for green infrastructure irrespective of LTCP protocol amounts to a self-administered placebo.
In turn, such helpless reaffirmations of belief systems become food for political hucksters who will support the public’s belated enthusiasm for green alternatives at no cost. Whether or not the finished LTCP contains alternatives, green or otherwise, these officials know that the approved plan is the only plan that matters.
After all, it was the public’s own responsibility to recognize the plan’s correct procedural moment in which to advance the favored green alternatives – even if no one was aware that any such plan existed until five years after its completion.
LTCPs AS EMPTY EXERCISE
Currently faced with several CSO issues, Hudson’s LTCP is predictably silent.
In February, the Legal Committee of the Common Council discussed a proposal to more than double the permissible lot coverage in residential districts to 70%. Despite an increase in runoff directly proportionate to the increase of impermeable surfaces, the approved LTCP offered no guidance on the subject.
Also in February, the city’s Common Council weighed in on a CSO issue which was not mentioned in the LTCP. The council’s uninformed vote was not driven by environmental concerns, but by the promise of another sizable grant, this time from the state’s WQIP program for $182,250.
While it’s true the LTCP was not available to legislators until after the WQIP application was submitted (please re-read!), considering the purpose of the grant and what later turned out to be the document’s silence on the subject, the long-term implication of the vote and the grant is a massive increase in unfiltered runoff into the surrounding waters.
The ineluctable consequence of the current $600K grant request “to undertake sewer separation activities” is far more stark. Unlike the passive contribution to sewer separation expected of the WQIP projects, this Community Development Block Grant grant is intended to further a policy which can only lead to a net increase of water contamination issuing from the City of Hudson. This is due to the particularities of Hudson’s LTCP, which was devised by a handful of individuals who didn’t have the environment’s interests at heart.
TO SPLIT OR NOT TO SPLIT
To the assumption that LTCPs are generally properly conducted, a further simplistic notion holds that the splitting of Combined Sewer Systems is always recommended.
Last year I was assured by an official at the Division of Water that in practice, total sewer separation is the default policy of the state. This week, Hudson’s DPW Supervisor confirmed the same approach on behalf of the city.
But there are at least as many solutions to CSO problems as there are particular circumstances, certainly in regard to variables such as receiving water bodies, and to varying degrees of affordability.
In that regard, it’s highly unlikely that Hudson, hell-bent on increasing its runoff, has the only LTCP in state that ignores the potentially negative impacts of runoff for receiving water bodies.
But Hudson is certainly unusual for its new 17-million gallon capacity Waste Water Treatment Plant which has greatly reduced CSO events to three in 2013, and none so far in 2014. The number could be further reduced with modest repairs to the system, which would be one benefit of the aforementioned WQIP grant.
Yet despite this favorable change in circumstance, and in contrast with yet another failure of LTCP compliance on the part of the city (an earlier requirement of an overflow notification system went by the wayside), both city and state remain firm on the goal of zero CSO events.
To explain this uncharacteristic concern on the part of the city, consider the promise of costly engineering projects to be underwritten by state and federal governments.
As the current grant application for $600K shows, plans to split Hudson’s combined sewer system are well underway, ultimately guided by the state’s assumptions and large grant awards which, as we’ve seen, substitute for public opinion.
For the city, the pernicious assumption shared by those who denied the public its rightful voice also happens to be the most lucrative one. They explain it as an “environmental benefit” that 100% of Hudson’s unfiltered runoff will be diverted into the city’s two bays and the Hudson River, and who would know otherwise?
But storm sewers are already separated in parts of the 5th Ward where unfiltered runoff is dumped into a stream, and from there to Underhill Pond. That this example of thoughtless sewer separation is regarded as a success in the LTCP should cast doubt on any belated displays of enthusiasm for green infrastructure on the part of city or state officials.
Considering the emphasis the EPA places on required public participation throughout the development of LTCPs , there’s every reason to believe that the poor supervision which failed Hudson’s LTCP indicates even greater failures within the Clean Water Act’s regulatory apparatus.
The extent to which the EPA is responsible for knowing how its own policies are administered at the state level is a compelling question, and is currently being considered by other water advocates throughout the state.
Of potential interest to Hudsonians whose LTCP commits the city to being a greater net source of water contaminants, these groups intend to find out whether an LTCP can be modified once approved (hint: see Water Quality Standard reviews).
To give an idea of the generally poor level of thinking on the subject, chief among those with no answer to the previous question is the state’s Division of Water, the very agency which approved Hudson’s LTCP. Nor were these same officials (who earn six figures) able to answer how SEQRA might apply to anyone’s sewer activities, including their own.
Because the regulatory slovenliness of the DEC’s Division of Water may be far-reaching, it’s not impossible that the state’s blessings on Hudson’s chronic malfeasance, its contempt for the public, and its environmental callousness offer an exemplary image with which to address a regional problem.
By confronting this shameful circumstance that’s been years in the making, people’s conscious involvement in a local issue (of which they’re already unconscious participants) stands a fair chance of effecting policy on a much larger scale. This could be a rare and promising opportunity if we’d only seize the moment.