Environmental Groups Sue NYS Over New NY Bridge Funding

Oct 29, 2014

Credit WAMC, Allison Dunne

Three environmental groups are suing New York State agencies and officials over the planned use of Clean Water Act funds for construction activities surrounding the replacement Tappan Zee Bridge.

Riverkeeper, Waterkeeper Alliance, and Environmental Advocates of New York Monday filed a lawsuit in State Supreme Court in Albany against New York State officials, seeking to ensure that federal Clean Water Act funds will not be used in building the new Tappan Zee Bridge or for future projects. Marc Yaggi is executive director of Waterkeeper Alliance.

“This attempted diversion of funds is bad for our country. It has the potential to set a dangerous national precedent,” says Yaggi. “If New York gets away with this overreach, the state will be creating a blueprint for other states to raid clean Water Act funds.”

Riverkeeper President Paul Gallay adds:

“The stakes are too high to let this illegal raid on Clean Water restoration funding go through without a fight,” says Gallay.

The lawsuit names the Department of Environmental Conservation, Environmental Facilities Corporation, Thruway Authority, and Public Authorities Control Board, as well as eighteen individuals involved with these agencies. The suit comes after the Environmental Protection Agency in September disqualified more than $481 million of $511 million in loans to the Thruway Authority for projects related to building the estimated $3.9 billion New NY Bridge, connecting Rockland and Westchester Counties. EPA allowed 30 days for the state to appeal and has since granted a 30-day extension. In an e-mailed statement, EFC spokesman Jon Sorenson says the additional time will allow EFC and the others to further emphasize the merits and legitimacy of the environmental protection projects and their benefits to the Hudson River estuary.

Sorenson says the financing in question will reduce project costs by up to $35 million and help keep future bridge tolls as low as possible. He says EFC intends to vigorously defend its right to finance Clean Water Act projects that benefit the Hudson River Estuary, as well as toll payers.

Officials with the environmental groups contend that not only are clean water funds ineligible for bridge construction projects, but the public was deprived of its rights to participate in the decision process. Riverkeeper’s Gallay alleges the funding amount the EPA is allowing did not go through the proper process.

“So we’re in court to make sure that the 95 percent that’s been disallowed stays disallowed,” says Gallay. “And we’re also in court challenging the remaining 5 percent because it denies the public their right to be heard as to the propriety of the loan.”

Democratic Assemblyman Thomas Abinanti criticizes the state’s hiring an outside law firm to appeal the EPA decision.

“This is a meritless appeal,” says Abinanti. “It’s a waste of time and it’s a waste of money.”

Abinanti, whose district includes the Westchester side of the Tappan Zee Bridge as well as the site of the new bridge, also opposes the use of clean water funds for bridge construction projects.

“Why are we wasting money on expensive counsel just to get the right to borrow money. I could understand if this were a grant; it would be worth the effort. But it’s only the right to borrow,” says Abinanti. “The federal government has already given us a large loan. Why do we have to have another loan?”

Environmental Advocates of New York Executive Director Peter Iwanowicz questions why the state turned to outside counsel.

“We posed those questions to the state and actually filed a Freedom of Information request with the DEC as well as the Environmental Facilities Corp. to seek the actual nature of the contract, who the contract is with, and what it’s costing the state to hire outside counsel,” says Iwanowicz. “Why they chose this route rather than staying in house with their own counsel at EFC and DEC, or why they didn’t use the services available by the attorney general’s office is a question for the agencies. They haven’t told us why.”

EFC spokesman Jon Sorenson says the law firm was selected through a competitive process and total costs will not be known until the appeals process is complete. He adds that preserving the flexibility that the Clean Water Act affords the state to administer the funds and defending against EPA's overreach is a worthy investment.

Environmental advocates say clean water funding should be used to help the state’s crumbling wastewater infrastructure. Again, Waterkeeper Alliance’s Yaggi.

“In the vernacular of the holiday season, the state’s economic trick is not a treat for the environment and for our clean water.”

Officials say, so far, no funds have been transferred from EFC to the Thruway Authority. A DEC spokesman referred a request for comment to the EFC spokesman. Others did not reply in time for this broadcast.