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News last week that the Adirondack Council plans to sue the Village of Saranac Lake marked an escalation in a long-simmering war of surrogates among numerous interests driven by local and regional motives.
On its surface, the Council’s threat of legal action, claiming violations of federal clean water law, is a straight-forward matter: an environmental organization acting on behalf of a smaller advocacy group to compel a municipality to redress a long-neglected source of pollution to a prominent and endangered body of water.
In this case, the water is Lake Colby in Harrietstown at the northern entrance to the Village of Saranac Lake. Transected by a railroad causeway at its southern end, subject to unfiltered nutrient loads from storm water draining off state route 86 and ongoing residential development on Mount Pisgah and the village’s French Hill neighborhood, colonized by Eurasian watermilfoil, and chronically poisoned by an industrial-zoned wetland at its southeastern inlet, Lake Colby is arguably the most beset waterway in the Saranac River watershed.
The Council’s pending lawsuit targets just one of Colby’s many plagues: chloride pollution, and targets just one point-source of the problem: the village’s unsheltered salted sand pile situated on a filled in section of the wetlands. Harrietstown also maintains an uncovered salted sand pile in a separate section of the lake’s wetlands, though farther removed from the direct flow to the lake. Harrietstown is not named in the Council’s lawsuit.
The Council’s interest in remediating this contaminant is shared by the Lake Colby Association, whose treasurer sits on the Council’s Board of Directors and has pressed village and town officials to remediate the salt runoff problem for the better part of a decade. The association’s lake water testing data provides the basis of the Council’s complaint, and was used five years ago by village officials to obtain a $175,000 matching grant from the Department of Environmental Conservation to build a storage shed for the sand pile. Efforts to match the grant money, as well as the debate on consolidating Village and Town sand piles has been hamstrung by political division on Saranac Lake’s Village Board.
In short, the situation on Lake Colby and the Village’s role in its ongoing contamination provides a case study in municipal neglect of state and federal environmental laws. A clear cut and winnable lawsuit for the Council, should it ever go to court.
That is the the dynamic of the issue on the surface. Just below the surface—barely visible—there is a different dynamic at work, with more far-reaching implications. It involves the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, and its reluctant role as enforcer of federal and state environmental laws where municipal governments ignore or break them.
The DEC operates an Environmental Education Camp on the shores of Lake Colby for young residents (ages 12-14) of New York State. Among other lessons imparted at the camp, according to the DEC website is “a study of human impact” on the environment.
In the Council’s press release on the pending lawsuit against the village, Director Brian Houseal states, “The DEC is equally to blame. DEC is supposed to be protecting water quality and enforcing the Clean Water Act on all Adirondack lakes.” In fact, according to the Lake Colby Association’s web site, the DEC was the original target of the Council’s suit, when it first considered legal action last February. Even though the target has since changed, it is clear that one of the Council’s goals is to embarrass the DEC into playing a more active role in enforcement.
In the often volatile political environment of the Adirondack Park the role of environmental enforcer often carries pariah status. Residents threatening to file lawsuits against their local governments are often scorned publicly. Members of the Lake Colby Association are figuratively tarred—on a regular basis—by irate fellow citizens and taxpayers on the airwaves of WNBZ’s Talk of the Town. And it is a sticky reputation. This treatment extends to state agencies (APA to name the obvious) with enforcement power. Even the private, not-for profit Adirondack Council is reluctant to confront local interests. Asked when the last time was that the Council filed a suit of this kind, Council Spokesman John Sheehan said, “I’ve been with the Council for nineteen years, and I cannot remember one.”