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NYS Public Service Commission decision on Rockland Desal expected Dec. 17

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By George Potanovic, Jr., Rockland Water Coalition

After eight years of an acrimonious public debate, on December 17, 2015, the NYS Public Service Commission is expected to finally decide the fate of a proposal by multinational giant Suez Environment to construct a controversial Haverstraw Water Supply Project desalination plant for public drinking water in an irreplaceable habitat of the Lower Hudson River. Rockland County residents have voiced overwhelming opposition to Suez’s plan to deliver Hudson River drinking water to its customers, drawn just 3.5 miles downstream from the leaking Indian Point nuclear power plant. In addition, Suez’s cost projections for the proposed plant, which has been proven as unnecessary for at least 10 years, have topped more than $153 million for the first stage alone.

Rockland County residents delivered more than 26,000 signatures to Governor Cuomo in opposition to the hugely unpopular proposal in June 2012. Over 2,000 residents packed two Commission public hearings in October 2013 – overwhelmingly speaking out against the need for the new water project. In a groundbreaking decision last year, the PSC halted the project based on reduced local demand. This has provided time for the County of Rockland and the water company to study the feasibility of greener, more sustainable, demand-side water management policies and practices, based on conservation, repair of leaks, and development of smaller supply sources. The PSC has now set the Decmeber 17 meeting in Albany to decide whether Suez’s desalination project should move ahead or finally be abandoned. The PSC meeting will be broadcast live on the internet.

For a copy of the PSC meeting agenda and a link to view the online, live broadcast, which beings on December 17 at 10:30am, click here.

The proposed Haverstraw Water Supply project Hudson River desalination plant, has raised a number of environmental, economic, and governmental oversight issues and had pitted United Water Company, now renamed Suez, against the 30+ member organizations that formed the Rockland Water Coalition, which initiated grassroots citizen education and opposition to the proposal in 2008. Community opposition has grown to include Rockland County local and New York State elected officials, residential and business ratepayers, scientists, and water industry professionals. In 2014, the County of Rockland formed a water task force that has focused its efforts on identifying best practices for water conservation and management. The pending December 17 PSC decision is now seen a precedent-setting ruling that could shift efforts towards more sustainable demand-side water conservation practices for Rockland County and set a new direction for water policy in New York State. Suez NY is the current water supplier for approximately 88% of Rockland County’s residents.

Issues include:

A Precedent for New York State in an Age of Climate Change: Energy & Water Policy: Many observers believe that Suez sees the project, which would have been the first desalination plant in New York State, as a foothold for desalination plants in the water rich but densely populated Northeast. The company spent $56.8 million in planning costs alone, without a shovel in the ground. The December 17 decision could be precedent-setting if the project is rejected in favor of far less expensive, energy saving demand side water conservation solutions: including repair of extensive system leaks, plus smaller supply sources. As the PSC’s plan for energy, REV, moves forward through the public comment period, this decision could set the stage for a revised water policy in New York State, as well.

Opponents argue that the energy intensive plant would affirm unchecked water consumption at the expense of the environment and steeply rising water rates. Because of the high costs and environmental impacts, desalination is usually reserved for arid areas. By contrast, Rockland County has a mean annual rainfall of 49 inches and is the fifth wettest county in NYS. There has been fierce criticism of the utility from the public for failing to undertake due diligence in examining far less expensive, less harmful demand and supply options.

In comments submitted to the PSC last November, Columbia University climate scientist Prof. Klaus Jacob called Suez’s desalination proposal “an abysmal, energy-guzzling greenhouse gas machine that has no place in a modern energy and climate-change conscious environment and society.” At a time when scientists are calling for urgent action to reduce emissions, when Governor Cuomo has made action on climate change a priority for his administration, and when NY State has set a goal of 80% reductions in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, opponents see this proposal as locking in long term increases in carbon footprint.

Drinking Water Drawn Downstream from Indian Point: If permitted, the proposed plant would be the first desalination plant to be located downstream from a nuclear power plant. The plant would draw drinking water 3.5 miles downstream from Indian Point. Since 2006, leaks and permitted releases from the plant of strontium 90 and tritium have been well documented. Tritium cannot be removed from water by reverse osmosis and trace levels of both tritium and strontium 90 were found in the finished water from the pilot plant.

Privatization of Public Water Supply & Questions about Undue Influence: What does it mean for a foreign multinational corporation to control and profit from a natural resource as fundamental as water? How do private citizens ensure that their voices are heard by government, in the face of the limitless resources of a multinational corporation? With governments increasingly turning to “public private partnerships”, are regulators fully able to rein in corporate interests and hold the company accountable? Some elected officials have proposed a takeover by a public water authority.

Closely Watched Major Decision on December 17: This Thursday’s decision is being closely watched not only in Rockland County, but also in other communities fighting desalination proposals around the country. At the same time, if the decision signals a change in policy for the PSC, it could also result in a new direction for the multinational Suez, turning away from big new supply sources toward a greener demand reduction policy.

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