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Politics Trump Environment and Human Health as Cuomo Fast-Tracks WNY Projects

The issues surrounding hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” are complex environmentally and politically. This is especially true for a politician such as Governor Andrew M. Cuomo who has made economic development the centerpiece of his administration.

On one side, the oil and gas industry, known as generous campaign contributors, has touted the jobs and economic benefits hydraulic fracturing would bring to New York’s struggling Southern Tier. On the other, environmental advocates and high-profile celebrities have vociferously opposed fracking due to its potential to pollute the state’s water and air and threaten human health.

Mr. Cuomo has promised that his administration’s long awaited decision regarding the use of fracking as a means of extracting natural gas will be based on “the science” and “the facts,” and not on political considerations. That assurance rings hollow given the governor’s recent handling of several Western New York development projects.

On September 5, 2013, Mr. Cuomo announced his plans for Buffalo’s Outer Harbor. The proposal calls for the transfer of nearly 400 acres of lakefront property from the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority (NFTA) to the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. (ECHDC). While these agencies are nominally autonomous, in reality, the governor controls both entities through his power to recommend or directly appoint a majority of the members of each agency’s board.

The governor’s September 5 press release proclaims that his plan—to invite new investment and businesses and develop a high-quality state park to serve local residents and attract visitors - “will build on our ongoing efforts to spur economic development, increase tourism, and create jobs for the whole region.” It also promises a “comprehensive planning process” to provide the public “with the opportunity to convey their ideas and opinions regarding waterfront development.”

Not surprisingly, Mr. Cuomo’s announcement was not preceded by the environmental review envisioned by SEQRA, the State Environmental Quality Review Act. That legislation, enacted in 1975, mandates an objective assessment of potential adverse environmental impacts “at the earliest possible time” in the decision-making process, and prior to planning and policy making activities that “commit the agency top a definite course of future decision.” It is a process tailor-made made to produce “the science” and “the facts” our governor claims he wants.

Had the Cuomo administration preceded its September 5, 2013 announcement with the objective information-gathering process required by SEQRA, it would have been reminded of the many reasons why Buffalo’s first-ever swimming beach may not belong at the Outer Harbor site known as Gallagher Beach. As recently chronicled in the Investigative Post report published in ArtVoice, that stretch of the Outer Harbor is designated as an “impaired waterway” due to its failure to meet minimum water quality standards. Prior dumping by nearby industries has left a harbor floor contaminated with PCBs. Two “Class 2 Superfund sites” are located upstream from the proposed beach site. And, the Gallagher Beach site is 600 feet north of a large stormwater discharge drain that belches untreated bacteria and chemicals directly into the Lake Erie waters following heavy rains.

Press releases issued on September 26 by the Governor’s office and NFTA already treat the conveyance of NFTA’s 400 acres to the ECHDC as a fait accompli. We are told that the Authority’s board “met and approved the sale of its remaining land and property holdings on Buffalo’s Outer Harbor to Gracious Living Corporation.” The NFTA will be paid $4.7 million for a 49.5-acre parcel, and the Canadian manufacturer and distributor of outdoor furniture, in return, will receive $2 million in tax credits from the Empire State Development Corp.

According to NFTA Chairman Howard A. Zemsky, “The sale of this property is a very sound strategic decision that follows Governor Cuomo’s visionary plan for Buffalo’s waterfront.”

Once again, neither the NFTA’s decision to sell to the parcel to Gracious Living, nor the approval of $2 million in tax credits, was preceded by the SEQRA review process. The Cuomo administration and its agency pawns appear intent on returning to the pre-SEQRA era when, in the words of then-Governor Hugh L. Carey, “it has become perfectly clear that state and local agencies have not given sufficient consideration to environmental factors when undertaking or approving various projects or activities.”

Clearly, Governor Cuomo has not let science or the facts impede his political goals for Western New York and beyond. Should we expect the fracking decision to be any different?

- Arthur J. Giacalone, East Aurora

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