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Rockland's desalination fight: Two big steps forward but project still alive

 

by Peggy Kurtz and Gale Pisha
 
After years fighting a proposal for a massive desalination plant, Rockland Sierra Club activists have seen their hard work pay off in several rather remarkable developments this spring.
 
The Sierra Club opposes the highly energy-intensive project due to its increased carbon footprint and the impact on irreplaceable Hudson River habitat, as well as the extraordinary costs of desalination. If built, the desalination plant would draw water 3.5 miles down the Hudson from Indian Point nuclear power plant, exposing Rockland residents to trace amounts of strontium-90 and tritium in their drinking water.
 
This spring, after a whirlwind of hearings and public comments, an initial recommendation from the Public Service Commission agreed with Sierra Club, the Rockland Water Coalition, and with top elected officials in the county: Rockland County does not need a new water source for many years to come.
 
But the fight against desalination goes on, since in their initial report, the PSC staff also recommended that the multinational corporation Suez/United Water continue to pursue permits for desalination, despite the fact the same report saw no need for the project for years to come!
 
At the same time, Rockland County has taken a giant step toward taking control of its water future by establishing a task force on water management, offering the promise of far more sustainable water supply alternatives to desalination.
 
Rockland Task Force
Rockland’s new Task Force on Water Resources gives the county the opportunity to create a truly sustainable water policy, which could be a model for New York, conserving both water and energy. Established by a bipartisan effort of Rockland County Executive Ed Day and the leadership of the county legislature, the task force aims to develop a water policy that is both fiscally and environmentally sustainable, while ensuring a plentiful water supply far in to the future. With broad representation of sectors from the community, the task force will seek to reduce water usage, maximizing conservation and efficiency as much as possible. Environmentalists have long argued that conservation and efficiency, repair of leaking infrastructure and a more equitable water sharing agreement for the reservoir, could meet Rockland’s water needs at far less cost than desalination both to the environment and to ratepayers.
 
Initial PSC report: desalination not needed now
In another remarkable development, on May 22 a PSC staff recommendation reversed an earlier decision on the underlying need for the desalination plant. This new initial recommendation came in response to startling new data showing that Suez/UW’s projections about water use were entirely wrong: Rockland is actually using less water, rendering the desalination project unnecessary at least until 2020.
 
Now the Sierra Club and other activists are waiting for a formal decision by the PSC. If confirmed, the new recommendation gives the county time to create an effective green policy, avoiding desalination.
 
Call for an investigation
At the same time, a second extraordinary request by Suez/UW for a $60.3 million down payment on the proposed desalination plant is awaiting a decision in July. Suez/UW is asking to be reimbursed for $60 million it claims was spent on its failed project, although not a shovel has yet gone in the ground.
 
Record numbers of Rockland residents turned out at hearings this spring to express their opposition to desalination and their frustration with Suez/UW’s reckless spending. In a striking display of public sentiment, over 1,200 residents and elected officials submitted comments, in addition to the 26,000 signatures delivered to the Governor on petitions.
 
In one more remarkable development, a second state agency and a consortium of all the towns in the county and leadership of the legislature have joined to call for a forensic audit and a prudence investigation of the water company, citing multiple irregularities, including lavish and undocumented spending.
 
Among the many issues cited is that 75% of the expenses for which Suez/UW seeks to be reimbursed are being kept secret from ratepayers. Residents are outraged that the company has stonewalled consistently to state agencies on even the simplest details needed for oversight, such as explanation of charges on invoices submitted for reimbursement.
 
Decisions due soon
Right now Rockland is waiting for two decisions from the governor and the Public Service Commission. One of those decisions is due in July, on the $60.3 million surcharge for Suez/UW desalination expenditures.
 
The second decision is the keystone decision, which will determine whether the highly controversial desalination proposal moves ahead.
 
Environmentalists are very concerned that the initial PSC report recommended that Suez/UW continue to pursue permits for desalination, even while at the same time stating that desalination is not needed in the near future.
 
Rockland elected officials and grassroots activists point out that this would mean that the company continues to pour millions of dollars into a project for which there is currently no clear need.
 
What you can do
WRITE TO THE GOVERNOR! Send even a very short comment today to the PSC and governor. Email your comments to: secretary@dps.ny.gov AND to gov.cuomo@chamber.state.ny.us.
 
Be sure to put in the subject line “PSC Cases 13-W-0303 and 13-W-0246.” Talking points can be found online at www.nodesal.com or simply write why YOU oppose this unaffordable, unsafe project!
 
The Sierra Club and the Rockland Water Coalition are recommending that you:
  • Ask the Governor and the PSC to halt all spending on this project. No more of the public’s money should be spent on a massive and harmful project that is not clearly needed.
  • Ask for a forensic audit of expenditures by Suez/UW, which has stonewalled shamelessly and has refused to document $60.3 million for which it is asking to be reimbursed!
  • Ask for a prudence investigation to examine why Suez/UW failed to genuinely examine less expensive, less harmful water supply options.
  • Tell the governor and the PSC, Rockland is ready to move ahead to create a far more fiscally and environmentally sound water policy, which can be a model for NY State.
  • Donate to help us finish the fight! This year experts hired by the Rockland Water Coalition and the Sierra Club clearly were effective. It is critical that we retain experts as we go forward.
 
Send a tax-deductible donation, made payable to Sierra Club Foundation, to Water Coalition, PO Box 792, Pearl River, NY 10965 (write “desalination” on the memo line) or donate online at www.nodesal.com. Either donation goes entirely to the fight against desalination.
 
The grassroots work of Sierra Club and our partner groups have made all the difference in this fight, changing the desal plant from being a “done deal” in the spring of 2013 to the very real opportunity now to create a truly forward-thinking model for water policy without desalination.
 
Peggy Kurtz and Gale Pisha are co-chairs of the Desalination Committee of the Lower Hudson Group.
Date: 
Friday, July 18, 2014
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