Vol. 12, No. 3 Feb. 11 - 24, 1999


Community Boards Reject Filter Plan
Planning Commission, City Council and Mayor Still Have Say


Over the last two weeks, all three community planning boards surrounding Van Cortlandt Park (Boards 7, 8, and 12) voted unanimously against building an 11-acre filtration plant at the site of Mosholu Golf Course in Norwood for the Croton water system. The hearings drew standing-room-only crowds comprised of residents and environmentalists who think the plant will destroy the park and the community, and union members who support the project because of the jobs it will provide.

The boards' action is only the first of several procedural hurdles that must be cleared by opponents of the plant, but activists were heartened by the resoluteness exhibited by the boards.

Community Board 7, which covers Norwood, Bedford Park and Fordham Bedford, added an exclamation point at the end of its unanimous 15-0 vote by passing a motion expressing its opposition to the building the plant anywhere in the Bronx. The surprise move prompted cheers from the audience.

On Dec. 1, the city announced its preference to build the plant at the golf course over seven other sites in the Bronx and Westchester. The city is tethered to a schedule of milestones it agreed to as the result of legal action taken by the federal Environmental Protection Agency. But activists who believe that filtration in unnecessary charge that the city has put little effort into trying to change the EPA's mind or at least secure more time to do the studies that may prove filtration avoidance feasible. According the schedule, plant construction must begin by 2001.

Though the boards were unanimous in opposition, the ranks of those in attendance were divided. Community residents and environmentalists were all of the same mind, but a large contingent of workers with Local 15 of the Operating Engineers union turned up at all the hearings, forming a vocal constituency for the project and the jobs it would provide.

Before boardmembers listened to testimony from the community, DEP officials presented their rationale for picking the golf course and offered arguments in an attempt to counter the widely-held perception that building the plant so close to a residential community would wreak havoc with its stability and quality of life.

"Impacts could be significant"
While conceding that "construction related impacts could be significant if we're not careful," Joe Ketas, a DEP deputy commissioner, said his agency's mitigation plans would largely eliminate any negative impacts on the community. (At the Board 12 meeting on White Plains Road in Wakefield, Ketas called the facility "a good neighbor" several times. He did not do so at Board 7.) Workers will immediately construct a 15-foot berm around the site, to protect residents from the noise associated with blasting one million cubic yards of soil and rock from the site, according to Ketas. Paving construction roads and wetting the site would suppress dust, he added.

That was not reassuring to Keyvan Ebrahimi, a resident of the Knox-Gates section of Norwood who can see golfers putting and driving from his living-room window. Ebrahimi said his son's asthma makes it difficult for the child to be active. Though doctors say his son could grow out of the disease, Ebrahimi fears heavy-duty construction across the street from his home "is going to take his only chance to run around and be a normal child away from him."

In Montefiore Medical Center's strongest statement to date regarding the project, Maurice LaBonne, vice president for Real Estate and Facilities Development, also expressed concerns about its effects on health. "It is just plainly implausible, just against common sense, not to expect a significant problem from airborne dust associated with the excavations," LaBonne said. "Yet, the draft EIS offers only a single paragraph discussion of the planned remedial efforts to reduce this problem."

The Bronx has a very high proportion of residents with asthma and local experts on the disease have said they believe the construction project will exacerbate existing problems and trigger new cases. The DEP's draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) concludes that "there are no expected adverse health effects associated with the project."

The DEIS is less optimistic on the project's impact on traffic congestion, and delays at key intersections are acknowledged. LaBonne, concerned about patient and emergency vehicle access to the hospital, also spoke to the traffic issue.

"Montefiore is greatly concerned that not only will ambulatory care patients and visitors find it difficult to reach the Moses Division, but, more importantly, that the traffic problems at Jerome Avenue and along Gun Hill Road, already severe, will impede ambulance arrivals to our Emergency Department." Despite DEP assurances that the traffic problem will mainly be felt above Gun Hill Road, LaBonne said, "Traffic will no doubt seek diversionary routes accessing Gun Hill Road."

According to the DEIS, during two daily peak hours, there will be more than 700 automobile and truck trips associated with construction.

Other speakers decried the taking of public parkland for an industrial facility. Though the DEP says it will restore the golf course and other parklands on top of the plant after construction, park advocates said that was no consolation. "Taking a rolling topography and making it look like a landfill with no trees is not restoring the park as we know it," said Jane Sokolow, who sits on the board of the Friends of Van Cortlandt Park.

In the same vein, Dart Westphal, president of the Bronx Council of Environmental Quality and publisher of the Norwood News, brought plant opponents to their feet with a thundering speech lambasting the litany of indignities the Bronx has suffered at the hands of city planners and calling his neighbors to action.

"If you look at what's happened in the Bronx in the past 25 years, it is only the people of the Bronx who have prevented its total destruction," Westphal said. "So it's time to say 'no more.' We didn't let them expand the Pelham Bay Dump, we didn't let them put this thing in the Jerome Park Reservoir and we shouldn't let them put it anywhere in the Bronx. It's about time everybody concentrated on doing things that made this borough better instead of trying to convince us that it will be just fine to accept another pile of sludge."

Though criticized by at least one union member as being proponents of NIMBYism (not in my backyard), many of the filtration foes said the plant shouldn't go in anyone's backyard. Neighborhood activist Lyn Pyle said building the facility would only encourage upstate developers to pollute the water in the belief that the plant downstream will take care of it.

"Shouldn't be built anywhere"
Councilwoman June Eisland agreed. "It not only doesn't belong in the Bronx," she said. "This filtration plant shouldn't be built anywhere." Eisland, like most local elected officials, had been advocating two industrial sites in the Westchester towns of Mt. Pleasant and Greenburgh as alternatives to a Bronx location for the plant. However, she said, she has modified her position after talking to Westchester County Executive Andrew Spano (see story on p. 1), who shares an interest in pursuing filtration avoidance. Spano and Putnam County's executive worry they might be required to build expensive filtration plants of their own if a comprehensive watershed protection plan is not pursued, Eisland said. Though a Westchester site is still a "back-up position," Eisland said, the apparent support of the executives increases the possibility that the city could secure an agreement for non-filtration, like it did for its other water source, the Catskill-Delaware system.

David Ferguson, a member of the HDFC (Housing Development Fund Corporation) Coalition, which advocates for a group limited-equity housing cooperatives, said that the higher water rates that would be imposed because of the plant's $660 million price tag would make it difficult for many landlords, and cooperators who pay their own water bills, to make ends meet. "It puts pressure on all housing," Ferguson said. "The whole housing picture of the city is going to be affected by this."

The union members argued that the project would create jobs and boost the local economy. Thomas Maguire, head of Local 15 of the Operating Engineers, said his union had supported a study of Croton water and only became advocates for building the plant in the Bronx when the federal government compelled the city to filter the Croton.

"No one wants to spend your hard-earned tax dollars on a project that's not absolutely necessary," Maguire said.

Water quality concerns
Many of the union speakers echoed the DEP's concerns with declining water quality, although Croton water currently meets federal standards.

Carl Schwartz, a member of the Friends of the Clearwater, a Hudson River advocacy group, said that DEP was using health as a scare tactic. Calling the Croton system "miraculous," Schwartz said, "Your health is not in danger and won't be in danger."

Margaret Groarke, a Norwood resident active with the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, said there were other ways to put union members to work.

"We do not have to ruin our neighborhood to get you guys jobs," she said.

Groarke said her group was rebuffed when it tried to meet with the Central Labor Council to discuss the Jerome Park Reservoir site but would still like to talk to the unions about the possibility that city workers could get jobs in Westchester if a plant was built at one of two industrial sites there. "We'd be happy to still have that meeting," Groarke said.

Ferguson also appealed to the workers. "Let's put the jobs where the work is and not destroy neighborhoods," he said, citing the need for building more schools and fixing bridges.

Many speakers insisted the city could avoid filtration if it wanted to, by convincing the federal government to give it more time to finish studies (under the court-imposed schedule, the city won't be finished with the studies until after it is required to begin construction of the plant), and by aggressively pursuing watershed protection measures in the Croton.

Asked after the meeting if his agency was lobbying the EPA on filtration avoidance, Ketas said it was. "We're going to keep trying,"he said.

But Ketas also said that there is "still a lot of misinformation" among the plant's opponents.

"They've convinced themselves that filtration in and of itself is a bad thing and that convinces me that they really don't understand what the proposal is," Ketas said.

But Reservoir Place homeowner Fay Muir said she understands it all too well.

"There's no doubt about it,"Muir said. "If they build a filtration plant, there's going to be an exodus from this community."

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