Vol. 16, No. 4    Feb. 13 - 26, 2003


DEP Chief Set on Filtration Plant


If opponents of a water filtration plant thought a new city administration would present a better opportunity to press their case against the project, they were wrong.

At a community meeting organized by Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion at DeWitt Clinton High on Jan. 31, DEP commissioner Christopher Ward made it clear that he is strongly in favor of filtering the Croton water system, which provides the city with 10 percent of its water supply and up to 30 percent in times of drought. 

The federal government and a federal judge have decided much the same thing and the city agreed to build the plant by signing a consent decree in court. But anti-filtration activists have long held that the city could avoid filtration by protecting the watershed upstate and investing in natural methods of cleaning the water. They argue that the water meets federal standards now, and that building a plant would actually encourage greater development and pollution in the watershed. 

Karen Argenti, a veteran activist who has become an expert on water issues, even went as far as to say that she would arrest all recent DEP commissioners for failing to protect the watershed, if she were so empowered. 

Ward seemed to be presenting new information when he argued that problems with the water could eventually cause bladder, colon, and rectal cancer and even have effects on a woman's reproductive system.

Opponents of the plant weren't buying it. They came prepared with blue cards with the word "false" written on them that they raised and fluttered in unison whenever they didn't agree with Ward. 

Argenti also urged the DEP to document why pursuing alternatives to filtration would not work in a "no-build alternative" in the agency's draft environmental impact statement. "If you're right, let's see it on a piece of paper!"

Ward said the court's insistence on filtration made such a study irrelevant.

Though many residents at the meeting have become advocates of avoiding filtration, they first became active on the issue because they fear the project's impact on the Bronx. The main site being considered by the city is along the Harlem River near Fordham Road. Just like their neighbors to the north who defeated the city's plans to build the plant in the Jerome Park Reservoir and later in Van Cortlandt Park, University Heights residents contend that the construction of the plant will inundate the area with traffic and construction dust, and exacerbate the already serious asthma problem in the community. They also believe the plant will simply be unsightly at a time when the city is trying to reclaim its waterfront for recreational use. 

The residents were supported by several elected officials including State Senator Efrain Gonzalez, Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz and Councilman Oliver Koppell. Though he mostly played the role of facilitator, Carrion said at the beginning of the meeting, "If we can avoid filtration, we ought to avoid filtration." 

The meeting also brought out the construction unions who hope to benefit from the jobs the plant's constrution would bring. Many times, the workers erupted into a chours of "Build it now!" 

In arguing for the project, many of the workers claimed the water they drank in their homes was dirty, and Ward, to the surprise of some, said nothing in response. 

Tommy McGuire, the leader of Local 15A, said he would be in favor of avoiding filtration were that option possible. "But clearly if the project has to be built, it should be built in the Bronx," he said. 

Strangely, no one at the hearing mentioned that the city is also considering a more isolated site it owns in the Westchester town of Eastview, perhaps because Ward insisted the meeting was about the need for filtration, or maybe because the city has chosen Bronx sites over Westchester sites twice before. 

The city will issue its decision on siting on April 1. But if the past is any guide -- and there were many people at Clinton who have sat through dozens of similar hearings on this issue over at least the past decade -- that will by no means be the end of the filtration saga.

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