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EPA Blocks Clean Water Act Funding for Tappan Zee Bridge Reconstruction

The U.S. EPA easily rejected Governor Andrew Cuomo's loan request, refraining from calling it chutzpah of the highest order: the Governor tried to pass off bridge construction as an environmental project worthy of the federal Clean Water State Revolving Fund (CWSRF). 

New York's longest bridge, the Tappan Zee Bridge, which opened to the public in 1955, is rapidly deteriorating, having exceeded its 50-year life expectancy by a decade. (The crossing spans the Hudson River to connect Westchester and Rockland Counties.) Construction is now underway on a replacement bridge, which is expected to be completed by 2018. The bridge reconstruction project has been closely monitored by government, industry, environmental groups, commuters, and area residents for many years.

Governor Cuomo's plan for financing the new Tappan Zee Bridge had to be clever, after all: the estimated cost of bridge removal and reconstruction is nearly $4 billion. To climb this mountain, New York State solicited funding from a number of sources for this project, including the CWSRF.

The CWSRF, authorized by the federal Clean Water Act (CWA), provides financing for conservation and management of the nation's estuaries. Generally, this fund is used for corrective actions which address point and nonpoint source pollution, improve water quality, manage fish and wildlife populations, and protect designated uses of each waterway. It has primarily been used by local governments to finance wastewater treatment facilities, stormwater management projects, landfill closures, and the like.

In the first application of its type and magnitude, however, the State applied to use CWSRF financing in the construction of the new Tappan Zee Bridge. The State's application outlined a number of projects associated with maintaining the water quality of the Hudson River in the face of damage to the estuary caused by the removal of the existing Tappan Zee Bridge and installation of its successor bridge.

However, on Tuesday, September 16, the EPA denied the majority of New York State's loan request, holding that the funds requested by the state were intended for improper construction purposes, rather than for environmental enhancement, as required by law.

In a carefully reasoned 13-page letter, EPA analyzed each element of the State's proposal. It concluded that items such as dredging the river, armoring the river bottom, developing underwater noise protection, restoring oyster beds, and transferring a falcon nest are mitigation measures, intended to counteract the damage caused by the installation of a new bridge within the waterway. Accordingly, these projects fall outside of the goals of the loan program.

Ninety-four percent of the requested $511 million was disallowed by the EPA; only $29.1 million of the loan, slated for stormwater management projects and restoration of marshland in Rockland County, was authorized.

EPA's decision recognizes that the CWSRF is to be used only for initiatives designed to affirmatively improve the nation's water quality, and not to mitigate impacts caused by construction. However, though the EPA has spoken on the issue, this fight is far from over. Governor Cuomo has announced that the state plans to appeal this decision. More chutzpah. The state has 30 days in which to file its appeal, and no doubt environmentalists and developers alike will be watching. Some will be laughing.

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