Environmental advocates are calling foul as the Cuomo administration moves to utilize clean water funds to help fund work on the new Tappan Zee Bridge, even as state wastewater infrastructure crumbles. Yesterday, the Public Authorities Control Board voted to approve a $255 million clean-water loan for the massive transportation project.

The Cuomo administration had originally proposed a much larger amount—$511 million—for the loan.

“Even if the amount is lower, the end result is the same,” said New York League of Conservation Voters President Marcia Bystryn. “The Public Authorities Control Board…wrongly authorized the use of clean-water loans to pay for a project that has nothing to do with drinking water or wastewater systems,” she stated.

The loan comes from the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, which is administered by the state Environmental Facilities Corporation and the Department of Environmental Conservation. The fund is capitalized by both state and federal dollars.

According to the state, the fund “provides low-interest rate financing to municipalities to construct water quality protection projects such as sewers and wastewater treatment facilities…Eligible projects include point source projects such as…treatment facilities and nonpoint source projects such as stormwater management projects and landfill closures, as well as certain habitat restoration and protection projects in national estuary program areas.”

State Agency Takes Contradictory Position on Clean Water Funding

The state Department of Environmental Conservation has publicly supported the loan. But the agency, at the same time, has decried the perilous condition of much of New York’s wastewater treatment infrastructure.

The DEC is an executive agency, meaning that it reports directly to the Governor’s office.

Photo credit: George Bremer via Creative Commons
Photo credit: George Bremer via Creative Commons

“Sewage and wastewater treatment facilities in New York State are deteriorating,” says the agency on its website.

“Almost all of New York’s residents rely on these facilities to treat sewage and wastewater from our homes and businesses before they return it to our waterbodies. However, one-quarter of the 610 facilities in New York are operating beyond their useful life expectancy and many others are using outmoded, inadequate technology, increasing their likelihood of tainting our waters.”

What is the solution, according to the DEC?

“More funding is critically needed. Over the last 20 years, federal funding has been reduced by 70%,” the DEC stated, citing 2008 statistics. But questions are being raised as to whether available funding is really finding its way to the communities that need it most.

Loan Funds Available but Wastewater Crisis Remains

Watchdog groups like Environmental Advocates of New York ask why, given the tremendous need for water infrastructure upgrades, the Clean Water State Revolving Fund had such a large surplus available for use on the Tappan Zee.

“This loan fund has a very dedicated purpose,” Travis Proulx, EA’s Communications Director, told New York Environment Report. “It’s their [the state Environmental Facilities Corporation] job to get it out the door. Why does the EFC exist then?” he added.

Proulx argued that taking out loans for major infrastructure projects was simply not viable for some communities. The state says it is prepared to offer interest rates as low as zero-percent, but Proulx pointed out that some smaller municipalities and towns cannot afford to re-pay a multi-million dollar loan for a new wastewater treatment facility, for example.

Proulx also stated that wealthier communities like Westchester County and Long Island have caps on local taxation, meaning sufficient funds cannot be raised to repay loans or otherwise invest in major water quality projects.

A recent letter from the Westchester Municipal Officials Association refers to the challenge posed by the property tax cap and states, “if the EFC has this level of funding available to remove and partially rebuild a new bridge, then clearly State and/or the EFC should reinstate funding that used to be provided to local jurisdictions for needed infrastructure improvements.”

But the EFC reports that funds are getting out the door. “Since 1990, the program has provided more than $14 billion in low-cost financing” for water quality projects. “This year, EFC expects to approve well over $1 billion in loans for new clean-water projects in more than 100 communities”, the public benefit corporation stated.

The EFC is now authorized to offer zero interest loans to the New York State Thruway Authority.

Will the EPA Stop the Cuomo Administration?

“Now, only [the] EPA or the courts can stop the EFC and the Thruway Authority from paying for a quarter of a billion in bridge construction work with funds they were given to fix sewage treatment plants and implement river restoration plans,” Paul Gallay, president of Hudson Riverkeeper said in a statement.

Gallay said that the Public Authorities Control Board had denied “the public their legally-mandated say about the loan. And, the EFC made it clear they’ll be back for the second half of the larger amount originally sought by the Thruway Authority.”

Riverkeeper says it is prepared to take the State on directly: “we prepare for litigation, which appears more and more unavoidable with every new development in this outrageous affair.”

The Cuomo administration has maintained that the funds will offset environmental impacts of the Tappan Zee project and “protect the Hudson River, its wildlife and wildlife habitats during the construction of the…Bridge”.

That is “simply not true,” responded Marcia Bystryn at NYLCV. “The vast majority of that [$255 million] sum is for bridge construction and related work. Clean-water loans are meant for clean-water projects – not for a bridge – and today’s vote could set a dangerous precedent that will inspire states around the country to start diverting clean-water dollars for whatever projects they like.”