News From Our President

Irene, Irene, best reason for restoring wetlands I’ve ever seen

In My View by Michael R. Edelstein, Ph.D.

In the recent press, now dominated by the devastation wreaked on Orange County and the region by Irene, there was scant coverage (except in the Strauss papers) of a fascinating conflict taking shape in Orange County’s black dirt region. The federal government has been purchasing land in order to restore wetlands. As demonstrated at the wonderful Wallkill River National Wildlife Reserve, mostly south of our county, the restoration of this historic region’s wetlands causes an amazing flourishing of nature, also covered in the recent press. However, the purchase program has taken some black dirt farming lands out of production and threatens to take more. As correctly noted by various farmers as well as County Planning and Water Authority Commissioner Dave Church, this is neither the time nor place to lose valuable food production capacity. Wetlands restoration, however, is a need of competing importance. The Black Dirt is wetland that is actively drained in order to farm. What an interesting dilemma!

Enter Irene with record rainfall. No better litmus test than this for how poorly we have protected our wetlands, maintained our floodplains, protected our rivers and dealt with runoff and drainage. Well, we flunked all of these tests. Roads, houses and businesses across the county were devastated. And in the black dirt, inundated crops tell the same story. If there is one lesson we should take from this experience, it is the need to follow the water and heed its message.

County and region-wide, we need to address ways to protect ourselves in future storms by restoring the ecosystem health and services that we have had no right or reason to destroy but have done so nonetheless. We need to prevent further damage and restore capacities by banning and removing impervious surfaces; carefully directing and catching the remaining runoff; planting, protecting and restoring trees and landscapes to trap water; protecting and restoring wetlands everywhere and by daylighting (not burying in culverts and pipes) and restoring our streams and rivers as part of our environment. As just one case in point, I have proposed for the County jail site in the Village of Goshen daylighting the now piped Rio Grande stream and restoring wetlands on the site to absorb flood waters before they reach the village center. This step can be part of any plans to replace or renovate the County Center, not surprisingly wiped out by Irene.

And in the black dirt, in testimony and an article called “thinking like a river,” I previously proposed approaching the Wallkill River with an understanding that flood control there is best achieved by strategic restoration and replacement of wetlands in various places, including the unused expansion landfill site. And in the black dirt proper, I proposed taking the least productive agricultural lands and restoring enough wetlands so that productive fields might escape inundation. It is this proposal that brings me back to the dilemma posed by federal purchase of black dirt for wetland restoration. I propose that Orange Environment, working with all stakeholders and agencies, develop a plan for conversion of strategic black dirt areas to wetlands, using federal funds. As part of the plan, an agreement would be reached with the government to support continued farming on the bulk of the black dirt with the hope that flooding there would be controlled in the process. The goal of restoring black dirt ecosystems would thus be achieved in a way that protected and ensured the continuation of farming. Competing goals would become cooperating ones. Similar logic can be exported to other parts of the region, ensuring that the disaster of the past days will be much less likely to be repeated while simultaneously restoring health to the local environment.

Michael R. Edelstein is Co-President of Orange Environment, Inc., a non-profit organization serving the Orange County region since 1982. He is also Professor of Environmental Psychology at Ramapo College of New Jersey and a faculty member in the Environmental Studies and Masters of Sustainability Studies programs there.

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Orange Environment Press comment on Interior Secretary Casino Decision, Jan 7, 2008:

Orange Environment, Inc, a co-plaintiff in litigation against the Department of the Interior over the inadequacy of the casino environmental review for the Mohawk site in Montecello, issued this comment today in the wake of Secretary Kempthorn’s denial of permission to both the Mohawk and Stockbridge-Munsee for off reservation casinos.

OE President Michael R. Edelstein called the Interior decision a major victory for Orange County. “The findings of adverse impact for these tribes underscores the concerns we have had with the lack of consideration for impacts that these casinos would have on the air and traffic quality of our region. Clearly it is time for casino proponents in the region to realize that casinos raise adverse impacts. The Secretary’s action was specifically focused on impacts for the tribes themselves. But the larger message is that these projects deserve a very hard look. And denial if the impacts cannot be mitigated. The Secreatary is to be commended for this decision.”

Orange Environment has worked closely with the Natural Resources Defense Council and Catskill groups on the casino issue.


When Dreams Can Become Nightmares – February 19, 2007

Gambling with the Region’s Future on Casinos and Airports

Michael R. Edelstein, Ph.D.

Recently, in Newburgh and Goshen, amazing open planning workshops occurred to shape visions for Orange County’s future. Momentum toward making our communities sustainable is mounting. As the region’s oldest voice for sustainability, Orange Environment, Inc. is excited by these events. But we must warn about contrary developments that demand attention.

This past week, Orange Environment, Inc. and three other organizations legally challenged the failure of the Bureau of Indian Affairs to take a required hard look at the impacts associated with a Mohawk Casino at Monticello Raceway. The Record’s editorial response to the suit was merely to brush it aside as a “desperate” act given that the casino is going to happen, regardless. The editorialist went on to suggest that there are more fruitful avenues to pursue to achieve mitigation for the casino’s impacts, although none were articulated. The Record is shortsighted, naive, and uninformed in its comments. If powerful forces are indeed prepared to ram through the Mohawk casino without addressing or even acknowledging the problems it will cause, as the impending victims of those problems, the last thing we should be doing is behaving like road kill. We need to act now or forever suffer the consequences.

The dream of Catskill casinos promises revitalization while ignoring the disastrous consequences for Orange County and regions south, through which 90% of the some 2 million additional vehicles generated just by the Mohawk casino at Monticello raceway would travel. The Rt. 17 corridor is already at or near capacity without the casino. Orange County is already out of compliance for ozone and particulate matter, even without the additional air pollution. Our EMT, fire and police are already overtaxed by frequent and tragic accidents. Our commercial centers are already becoming overcongested. More traffic is already promised by sprawl, the I-86 conversion, and numerous projects realized or proposed, including more casinos. The brilliant Bethel Woods Arts center, itself generating traffic, already evidenced problems of access even without the raceway casino at its gates. No one—not Orange County nor New York State—has stepped forward to address these issues. Orange Environment, Inc., having spent four years raising these concerns to the BIA, the state, the counties and the public, has long been an advocate of steps that would serve as partial mitigation, including re-creation of Main Line Rail or its bus equivalent, to get traffic off the transit corridor, and an end to sprawl development.

The loophole that allows casinos to be built on off-reservation lands creates circumstances that are frankly beyond the BIA’s normal concern with tribal welfare. The National Environmental Policy Act clearly requires that the welfare of communities adversely impacted by the project be considered, as well. The applicant and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, as lead agency, have a clear legal obligation to assess potential adverse impacts of the project, including cumulative, long term, irretrievable and irreversible and energy-related impacts. They are required to consider reasonable alternatives and to propose mitigation for identified impacts. They have failed. Thus, our appropriate legal challenge.

A parallel scenario is building to achieve the old dream of Stewart as the New York’s fourth metro airport. Enter the Port Authority, an agency with the resources and power to actually push this goal to completion. As plans quickly evolve, it is necessary to assure the same hard look at the cumulative effects of whatever is proposed, to make sure that alternatives are assessed and mitigation is in effect.

The belief that Stewart will save the Mid-Hudson is as deep as the belief that casinos will save the Catskills. Our obligation is to proceed so that our fondest dreams do not in reality become nightmares.


Guess The Number Of Casinos In The Jar And You Win A… – April 24, 2005

The latest game of chance in this region is the effort to guess (or second guess) the actual number of casino proposals aimed at Sullivan County. Originally focused on one casino, the ante was raised some time ago by Governor Pataki to 5 casinos. Embedded subsequently in five native land claim settlements, these casino “opportunities” were then included in a bill sent to the legislature for ratification. As readers know, this bill has now been withdrawn giving the appearance that only one casino is under active proposal by the Governor.

The number of actual casinos to be proposed is not insignificant, however. When the number was raised to five, casino opponents multiplied dramatically. “Too many” was heard throughout the region and state. Suddenly the governor had politically risked getting even one casino approved. And, there was another issue, advanced by Orange Environment and others, that the impact statements for the two advanced proposals — the St. Regis Mohawk and the Stockbridge-Munsee — address the cumulative impacts of all potential casinos. If the adverse impact of one casino was huge, the impact of five was astronomical.

What is striking is the public impression created by the Governor’s strategic retreat that we are back to only one casino proposal. In fact, the Governor may have many reasons for his step backwards. He certainly laid claim to a desire to revisit the terms of the land settlements in light of a recent Supreme Court decision that suggests that he gave too much away in these deals. He knew that the Assembly was likely to turn down the original proposal in any case. And he may have wanted to give the Mohawk proposal a chance to be fully approved without complicating matters as he might have originally done had his timing of the five casino escalation been more calculated. But nowhere did the Governor say that he was retreating from the use of casinos as a carrot in achieving land claim settlements. In fact, they may play an even bigger role in reaching agreements that will be comparatively paltry in their native benefits. The native groups that came to Assembly hearings to complain that they were left out of the land claims settlements may strike yet new deals. And the Stockbridge-Munsee casino application is far advanced and not easily abandoned.

We are deluding ourselves if we think that there is only one casino proposal in play. The only realistic assumption that can be made is that there are in fact five casinos in eventual play, although the real number could be less or even more depending on eventual conditions. Certainly, the Governor’s intent to approve five Sullivan casinos remains.

While the regional impacts associated with even one casino are great enough to be cause for denial of the required permissions or at least serious steps toward mitigation, Orange Environment will continue to demand that all casino impact statements consider the cumulative impact of five casinos in their analysis. And we suggest that others concerned about the mismatch between the needs of the region and thinking in Albany similarly not let down their guard.

What should happen now? In my recent testimony before the New York Assembly, I proposed that applications for casinos be suspended until the state undertakes a generic cumulative assessment to examine three things: impacts to the region and needed mitigation, alternative paths for advancing the region’s prosperity, and policy issues relating to the use of casinos in land claims settlements and as a state revenue-generating tool. The current hiatus now allows time to undertake such a comprehensive policy study. All regional voices should demand that the Governor comply with the New York State Environmental Quality Review Act and use its tools to protect us from unintended or irreversible effects of maldevelopment in the region.

Michael R. Edelstein, Ph.D. is President of Orange Environment, Inc. And Professor of Psychology at Ramapo College of New Jersey.


Letter to New Windsor Planning Board – December 9, 2004

December 9, 2004

James Petro, Planning Board Chair
Town of New Windsor
555 Union Ave.
New Windsor, N.Y. 12553

Dear Mr. Petro:

It has come to my attention that the TPST soil burning plant has requested extended hours that would extend their current shutdown from 10 P.M. to 3 a.m. This is almost a 25% increase in their current operations. We have a number of concerns that we ask you to consider.

First of all, this significant change in operations was not the subject of a full hearing to which residents were invited. I gather that only fenceline neighbors were invited to your recent meeting. A full hearing before the planning board with proper public notice is justified by this significant change.

Second, because this plant was never subjected to a full SEQR review, as it should have been, there is at a minimum an opportunity at this juncture to demand SEQR on the increase in operations, with the recognition that this review will incorporate the entire operation by necessity. This is a legitimate option under SEQR given that the request constitutes an action or potential significance. We recommend this step.

Third, this juncture offers the Town the opportunity to place an onsite monitor at the plant to supervise compliance. You are aware of many complaints over the years regarding noise, odors, smoke, operations with open doors (defeating the negative pressure air pollution system and causing fugitive emissions) and the general concern with health impacts. Whether these issues are re-raised by the public at any juncture or not, it is your fiduciary responsibility to act for the public in this matter. You can order this monitor under your special use permit arrangement or make consideration of the extended hours contingent upon the monitor agreement.

A monitor could work for the Town or the DEC. They would be paid by the soil burner but work for the independent agency. This is the best chance to assure compliance given the inability of the DEC generally, and particularly at this budget cutting juncture, to enforce environmental laws. It is our recollection that the Town has promised this step in the past.

Finally, it is our understanding that TPST has excess materials on site beyond what it can process. This stockpiling is a concern. You should consider asking TPST to not accept new materials until it has erased its stockpile. This step is an alternative to extending hours. You also have the code authority to bring action is stockpiles exceed that permitted under your current agreement with TPST.

Orange Environment, Inc. is available to discuss these matters further with you. Please contact us if you have any questions.

Sincerely,

Michael R. Edelstein, Ph.,D.
President