Putnam Legislature Again Ponders Opposing Clean Water Act Changes

Questions scope of federal authority

By Liz Schevtchuk Armstrong

Putnam County legislators last week continued debating whether to oppose tentative rules strengthening the federal Clean Water Act, changes that adversaries contend would increase construction costs and burden local governments but which supporters say would preserve valuable resources and return the law to its original scope.

Ultimately, the legislators again punted.

In July at a formal meeting and a Physical Services Committee session, they discussed a draft resolution contesting the federal move — without results. This time, the committee (and other legislators, commenting from the side of the room) informally agreed to seek more information on the federal intent before concluding whether or not to oppose the initiative.

A county resolution would be both symbolic — publicizing the legislature’s opinion but not enacting a county law — and significant, taking a policy stance as Washington weighs whether to finalize the regulations, championed by the Environmental Protection Agency and Army Corps of Engineers. The federal period for submitting comments on the case ends Oct. 20.

The Hudson River, from above Cold Spring: Anti-pollution advocates say the river benefited from the Clean Water Act; some of the law's defunct provisions could be restored under a draft federal proposal. Photo by L.S. Armstrong

The Hudson River, from above Cold Spring: Anti-pollution advocates say the river benefited from the Clean Water Act; some of the law’s defunct provisions could be restored under a draft federal proposal. Photo by L.S. Armstrong

The federal initiative would bring seasonal streams, wetlands near rivers, and similar water features under protection of the Clean Water Act, a landmark anti-pollution measure adopted in 1972. Court decisions in recent years either limited the law’s reach or created confusing complexity, or both.

In a news release, the EPA and Army Corps argue that their proposal “does not protect any new types of waters not historically covered under the Clean Water Act.” They also say that “about 60 percent of stream miles in the U.S. only flow seasonally or after rain, but have a considerable impact on downstream waters” and that 117 million residents, one third of the population, “get drinking water from public systems that rely in part on these streams.”

Putnam’s draft resolution complains that “the Clean Water Act was not intended to protect ditches and other channels through which water flows intermittently” or encompass “wet areas, isolated man-made ponds, and other structures… .” It further asserts that the impetus for tighter rules should not come from the agencies but “only through the U.S. Congress and limited by the decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court.”

Citing the opinions of environmental experts and his department’s attempts to safeguard water resources, lawyer-and-physician Allen Beals, Putnam County health commissioner, last month advised the legislature to not oppose the EPA-Army Corps plans.

However, doubts remain.

Putnam Highway Commissioner Fred Pena told the committee last week that the EPA-Army Corps proposal “provides no definition and limitation as to the control or invasiveness the EPA will now have” on activities “from a highway point of view, from a soil and water point of view, and from our own personal homes point of view. You can’t just say, ‘we control all waters in the contiguous United States.’”

A professional builder, District 5 Legislator Carl Albano, who chairs both the committee and the full legislature, Aug. 20 strongly opposed the EPA-Army Corps proposal. “It’s going to be the federal government stepping into somewhere else and costing everybody a lot of time and money,” he predicted. “The bottom line is, this will not make water quality any better than it is now.”

District 2 Legislator Sam Oliverio termed Albano’s claim “conjecture” but urged they seek an explanation of EPA-Army Corps’ authority if the regulations go through. Oliverio also said such tighter federal control “was originally in the watershed regulations. All this does is put back what was removed.”

Philipstown’s representative, District 1 Legislator Barbara Scuccimarra, called for legislative caution. Contaminants “from point sources are the biggest polluters,” she said, observing that western Putnam borders the Hudson. “It’s imperative that things don’t go into the river. I don’t want to take away from anything that would help keep the river [safe].”

Speaking from the audience, Philipstown Town Board Member Nancy Montgomery mentioned information in latter July from county aide that the legislature would not give the draft resolution any more consideration. Yet it ended up on the Aug. 20 committee agenda. “I have many, many constituents who have been watching this and want to know what the legislature is going to do,” she said. “I’d request you take no further action” unless the public is informed ahead of time that the legislature plans to address the issue.

The legislators then determined they need more facts on the reach of the regulations and the EPA-Army Corps jurisdiction.


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4 thoughts on “Putnam Legislature Again Ponders Opposing Clean Water Act Changes

  1. It is not surprising that “farmers” are opposed to clean water regulations since they are one of the principal contributors of contaminated water – be it fertilizer, animal waste or poor farming practices. And, of course, we have certain legislators, i.e. Albano, who is a small-time builder and against all regulations, asserting that the original Clean Water Act has done its job – an act that he would have probably opposed when first proposed. Let’s squeeze the last ounce of profit we can and we’ll worry about the health effects and their cost later.

  2. According to the story, Nancy Montgomery stated she had information at the latter part of July that the legislature would not revisit this issue. Yet, on July 30, Albano sent letters to each of three individuals asking them to attend the August 20 meeting because the matter would be brought up. This seems odd. Did someone change his/her mind or what? The Albano letters were included in the attachments at the end of the Committee minutes.

    I hope Barbara Scuccimarra will vote against this resolution if it ever comes up again. A couple of weeks ago, residents of Toledo could not drink their water (western Lake Erie) because of blue-green algae blooms resulting from fertilizer runoffs. Could not drink it at all, not even after boiling. The fertilizer industry is apparently one of the big (in every sense) opponents of the regs.

    The EPA has a web page with information about the proposed reg including the text and a link for public comment.

  3. I cannot tell what this means, but neither the objections to the Amendments to the Clean Water Act nor Butterfield, nor the Senior Center is listed on the current agenda for the September 2 meeting of the full legislature. There is, however, an item to approve an amendment to the Legislative Manual about Legislative Prayer.

  4. In its wisdom, the subcommittee of the legislature decided to postpone a decision on the Clean Water Act. As for the senior center, although there was much discussion as to whether it should be a part of the Butterfield proposal or not, in reality this is a matter for town residents and officials to decide. The only issue for the legislature is whether or not to re-locate satellite county offices to Butterfield. In that respect, Legislators Nacerino and Gross were opposed.