Monday, November 12, 2007

Westchester County Argues That The Sound Cleanup is Too Expensive

Westchester County has finally said publicly what its officials have known for a long time – that it will take a hell of a lot of money to meet the Long Island Sound cleanup’s nitrogen reduction goals at its two biggest sewage treatment plants, in Mamaroneck in New Rochelle. In fact, they seem to be saying that the benefit is not worth the cost:

“We are all for protecting Long Island Sound, but you’ve got to balance that over what people can afford to pay,” he said.

The cost estimate, according to yesterday’s New York Times, runs from $355 million to $573 million, which is almost as much as one of the original estimates for doing nitrogen removal at every sewage treatment plant on the Sound in New York.

The estimate has county officials making a number of different arguments, all of which are worth considering and all of which provoke strong disagreements.

1. Westchester County argues that New York State should allow a nitrogen trading program similar to the one Connecticut uses. If it did, county taxpayers would be spared the huge sewage plant improvement bill.

2. It points out that the cost has to be paid by the people who live in the sewer districts that empty into the Sound, rather than by all county residents, and so therefore the per household cost is going to be high.

3. It argues that in any case, Westchester’s contribution to the Sound’s problem is so miniscule that it makes no sense to require the county to meet the overall goal of reducing nitrogen by 58.5 percent by 2014.

On point 1, Bryan Brown, one of Sphere’s regular readers, noted here a few weeks ago that nitrogen trading only works if there’s someone to trade with. In Westchester’s case, the county would need a trading partner that has reduced nitrogen beyond its 58.5 percent goal and who would then be able to sell the credits to Westchester. The Times found some experts who agree:

In the five years trading has been conducted in Connecticut, baseline discharges of nitrogen have been reduced to 34,000 pounds a day, from 50,000 pounds a day, with the goal being 18,000,500 pounds by 2014. State officials estimate that the trading program – the largest of its kind in the nation, according to Mr. Grumbles of the E.P.A. – will save $200 million to $400 million, and that the total cost of reducing the state’s nitrogen discharge may ultimately be more than $800 million.

Environmental officials in New York say that carrying out a trading program among the 23 waste-water treatment plants throughout the state involved in the agreement with the E.P.A. would be much more difficult than in Connecticut, particularly for Westchester, which is the second-largest contributor to the problem, after New York City. It would be hard for the county to find other municipalities to trade with.

“There is not a supplier of nitrogen credits in this basin that could satisfy the requirements that Westchester has to satisfy,” said James DeZolt, assistant director in the State Division of Water.

On point 2 – the question of whether the costs should be borne only by those in the sewer districts or by all county residents – officials are wary because it’s politically risky. The sewer districts cover heavily-populated areas – New Rochelle, Mamaroneck, parts of White Plains and Scarsdale, Harrison, Port Chester and other towns – and presumably people who live there would be happy to share the costs. The other presumption, however, is that people who don’t live there would balk. And of course, if you’re going to ask Yonkers residents to pay for fixing the sewage plant in New Rochelle, at some point you’ll also be asking New Rochelle residents to fix the sewage plant in Yonkers. And there are also large, less-populated areas of the county where people do not live in a sewer district at all and so pay no sewer taxes.

I’m one of those people, and my opinion is that I’d like to know more about what the costs might be. Obviously I’m a proponent of cleaning up Long Island Sound. I also think that all of Westchester benefits if the Sound is clean, which might be an argument worth making if you’re trying to persuade people outside the Sound’s sewer districts to share the cost. But it’s hard to do that without some idea of what that cost will be. I could deal with a $50 or $100 a year property tax increase to pay for the Sound cleanup. But if it’s $3,000 a year, I’d have to think harder about it.

As for point 3 – that the county’s contribution to the Sound is negligible – I reject it completely. An argument could have been made 10 years ago that it was unfair to require every sewage treatment plant on the Sound to reduce nitrogen by the same amount. Hypoxia – the environmental condition that nitrogen reduction is trying to correct – is limited to the western half or third of the Sound and is worse off Westchester, Fairfield and Nassau counties.

Obviously the New London sewage plant, 90 miles away, was not playing as important a role in causing hypoxia as the big plants in Queens, the Bronx, Westchester and Nassau, etc. But for political reasons, those overseeing the Sound cleanup thought it would be more acceptable is all the communities were required to do the same amount of nitrogen reduction.

Westchester agreed. As a result, New London and Groton and other cities in eastern Connecticut are all doing their part in solving a problem that’s particularly bad off Westchester. But now that Westchester knows what the costs are, it wants a do-over.

Mr. Schwartz argued that the county’s four treatment plants contributed less than 1 percent of all nitrogen discharged from the Long Island Sound Watershed and that it made no sense for them to have to reduce their nitrogen emissions by at least 58.5 percent.

Here’s what state and county officials say in response:

State officials counter that although Westchester’s contribution may be only 1 or 2 percent, its plants are closest to areas of high concentrations of hypoxia, and some areas most affected are along the shoreline.

Mr. DeZolt said that while plants in other parts of the state, including in New York City, had taken steps to reduce their nitrogen output, Westchester was still in the planning stages.

Mr. Grumbles said trading might not always be the best way to reduce pollution.

“It depends on the conditions and different types of entities that are there,” he said. “We’re not trying to force trading on to any particular area.”

Paul E. Stacey, director of planning and standards for the Connecticut Bureau of Water Protection, said it might be difficult to duplicate the state’s trading program elsewhere.

“In a lot of ways, we had an ideal situation,” he said. “Four facilities might make it more difficult to trade. You really need the market, and we have plants of different sizes. We were lucky.”

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Anonymous Bryan said...

I hope Mr. Schwartz realizes that CT's nitrogen exchange program weights the credits based on their proximity to the hypoxic zone in the western Sound. Credits from more distant STPs (e.g., New London) are worth less than credits from Stamford.

2:50 PM  

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