Tuesday, August 3, 2021

Was the Adirondack Park Agency (APA) Duped?

upper saranac

APA mandate is to “ensure compliance with the laws the Agency administers” including the New York State Freshwater Wetlands Act. Instead, APA did the exact opposite with a recent decision permitting the virtual destruction of a Category 1 Wetland- the highest designation for a wetland – on Lot 9, Deerwood, Upper Saranac Lake (USL). For no apparent reason, other than convenience of the new landowner, APA issued an amended permit.

This ecologic system is extremely valuable to maintain USL water quality as two freshwater streams feed the lake via this strategic wetland.  The site is replete with old-growth trees and native plant species not often found elsewhere. Bobcat, fox, turkey, and deer use the property while bald eagle sit atop highest trees often as heron fish at the shore. On a recent Annual Loon Count, eight loons were counted directly in front of Lot 9, often the case. This is a rare and special habitat that must be responsibly managed not damaged.

No one disputes the development of a new home on this site consistent with existing environmental regulations and building constraints known to the new owner before purchase.  This issue galvanized the entire community. Over 70 letters from homeowners, USLA, USF, ADK Council, Center for Loon Conservation, wetland ecologist, environmental scientist, and engineers all are simply asking- any development permitted must comply with original restrictions and conditions of the Deerwood APA Permit 87-74.

However, based on communications, obtained by Freedom of Information Law, between applicant, or his representative, and APA employees prior to ruling, the APA assured approval before a permit amendment request was submitted. Could this be a case of preferential special interest treatment?  Of course, we all hope not, but something is amiss here.

Curiously, APA staff spoke casually about the application leading most to feel this was nothing to be concerned about. On the contrary, this is a precedent setting decision that will open floodgates to a wide range of ecological destruction. 


  • APA decided in error and failed to consider objective, science-based technical information on permit amendment. 
  • APA was presented with incomplete and inaccurate plans that failed to delineate water bodies even though streams and a connecting network of freshwater beneath the bog mats existing on the lot, topography and other information to make an informed decision. 
  • APA ignored independent, outside experts including 2 licensed professional engineers, an environmental scientist, and a wetland ecologist- all advised against proceeding with the project.
  • APA failed to consider any of these comments and refused to meet with adjacent property owners, professionals, concerned residents and lake associations before rendering their decision.   

Was APA duped?  They have the authority to reevaluate the application with verifiable documentation. APA must right this wrong.  They must also send a clear message of “never again” by pursuing legal action, if warranted, against anyone knowingly submitting a deceptive application.

APA, do your job managing the Adirondacks from reckless destruction by reversing this decision.

Christopher Cohan is a licensed Landscape Architect specializing in native plantings and public park design. He is an ADKAction Board member and a lifelong seasonal resident of the Adirondacks.

Photo provided by Upper Saranac Lake Association Community

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The Adirondack Almanack publishes occasional guest essays from Adirondack residents, visitors, and those with an interest in the Adirondack Park. Submissions should be directed to Almanack editor Melissa Hart at editor@adirondackalmanack.com

14 Responses

  1. Habitatman says:

    Sure does seem like the APA needs a “house cleaning”. Their mandate is not being exercised responsibly!

  2. Joe says:

    Looks like a ripe opportunity for and Article 78 proceeding. Are any of the environmental groups stepping up to the plate?

    • chris cohan says:

      Joe- Thanks for your comments. Yes, an article 78 was filed. So far a temporary injunction has been issued.

  3. Paul says:

    “a wide range of ecological destruction”
    “a recent decision permitting the virtual destruction of a Category 1 Wetland”

    This is quite a charged article. Can we get a link to the permit and the application so we can be sure these claims are backed up with the facts of the case?

    I would imagine that technology for septic systems is much different in 2021 than it was in 1974? Is there a chance you could build here and not impact the wetland? I guess we will see what happens and see who is correct – the regulators or the neighbors, I am sure water quality will be tightly monitored by the association and remediation can take place ASAP. The developer here is taking a big chance if the neighbors are right.

  4. nathan says:

    a copy of permit or link to it, add some proof.. because this is a serious accusation of corruption in the APA (not surprised).

  5. JB says:

    Paul, I like that you have a healthy skepticism in your mindset, but maybe I could be of help by adding a bit of personal knowledge and context to the conversation.

    My experience with the APA has been that they are stretched pretty thin, and yet, they have legally delineated timelines to meet in the Jurisdictional and Permit review processes. Therefore, it seems that they oscillate between, on the one hand, trying to cover their asses in meeting their legal obligations to protect “wilderness character” and wetlands in accordance with applicable regulations and, on the other hand, meeting their mandatory obligations to the landowners to push things along. Maybe there was some kind of under-the-table negotiation, maybe someone pulled some strings, but very likely this could have just been an oversight or human error, probably compounded by an Agency that is not fully functioning as intended.

    Where I am positive, however, is that approving a permit for a septic system this close to the wetland is a big mistake and a bad precedent. The basic concept and technology behind septic systems has not changed in 50 years, and the trouble is that the technology was never capable of preventing contaminants from entering the soil to begin with. The soil type and distance to ground and surface water determines the level of protection from water contamination with these types of systems, period (proponents of engineered systems may argue that artificial substrates can be as functionally effective as proper soils, but there is no adequate evidence to support their position). Unfortunately, in the Adirondacks, the same geologic history that gives us so many beautiful lakes and waterways to build our houses around also gives us the ubiquitous low-permeability soils and rugged topography that often makes OSWTS-related contamination of nearby surface waters a practical certainty. Without the help of large masses of adequate soils, we cannot remove contaminants from effluent, let alone waterways that are subsequently contaminated.

    In terms of water quality monitoring, basic testing would cost many thousands of dollars per year and does not guarantee detection of contaminant plumes, even of those contaminants that are easier to detect. Comprehensive testing for highly polar organic compounds (detergents, pharmaceuticals, biocides, solubizers, etc), which are emerging as the most pervasive and highest concern xenobiotic contaminants found in treated effluent, would require retaining the additional services of highly specialized analytical laboratories and would potentially cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Even then, the technology to detect lower levels of these contaminants, which are still capable of damaging human health and wildlife, essentially does not yet exist (the limit of detection of GC-MS, the current state-of-the-art, is woefully inadequate for monitoring this type of point-source contamination of a large waterbody).

    For your reading pleasure:

    “Our modern wastewater treatment technologies are little changed from the 1960s, and they are really only equipped to handle BOD (biological oxygen demand), fecal pathogens and some very basic other challenges. In the past fifty or so years, though, thousands of new compounds have come into widespread and increasing use by consumers, in the form of pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs) and other household products. Unfortunately, these facts, and their inevitable consequence for xenobiotic contamination of the environment, remain fairly uncontemplated by the general public, instead being mainly confined to the purview of a handful of experts. We can see that governments in the United States are well aware of this issue if we look at some of their reports.

    The vast majority of research, especially pertaining to OSWTS, however, is still focused on contamination in groundwater from fecal pathogens or nitrogen and phosphorus contamination, rather than PPCPs and related organic compounds. That research does indicate that those contaminants, which are heavily monitored, are finding their way into ground and surface water as a constituent of effluent from functioning OSWTS (Hantzsche and Finnemore [1992], Robertson et al [1991], Tinker [1991], Verhougstraete [2015], Walker et al [1973]). The organic compounds in PPCPs, which are present in virtually all WWTPs and OSWTS, are certainly also making their way into ground and surface water via discharge of treated effluent, especially since they are much harder to remove from wastewater due to their highly polar nature (water-solubility). This property is also what makes these compounds particularly hard to detect in the environment (Ternes et al [2004]) despite the fact that they have a very high potential for human and environmental toxic impact. That being said, there is still plenty of research confirming their presence in treated effluent and their subsequent occurrence in ground and surface water worldwide (Cormio [2008], Daughton and Ternes [1999], Ebele et al [2017], Halling-Sørensen et al [1998], Herberer [2002], Kolpin et al [2002], Kolpin et al [2004], Loraine and Pettigrove [2006], Luckenbach and Epel [2005], Montes-Grajales et al [2017], Nowak and Lisowska [2020], Del Rosario et al [2014], Stuer-Lauridsen [2000], etc). Further complicating things is the fact that some of the organic compounds that have been found in treated wastewater effluent are also used in house and boat paints, cleaning products, sunscreens, etc, which could provide additional sources of ground and surface water contamination. An example would be high concentrations of methylisothiazolinone (MIT), which is found in sunscreens, in beach sand. On the other hand, MIT and related compounds are also found ubiquitously in rinse-off products that ultimately make their way into wastewater effluent. The reason that these compounds are so widely used is due to their desirable antimicrobial activities, and they have been argued to be safer alternatives to other biocides due to their perceived low toxicity and low environmental stability. However, emerging research is calling this into question by demonstrating adverse health effects in mammals and aquatic life (neurotoxicity, cytotoxicity) and high prevalence in the environment (Silva et al [2020], Nowak and Lisowska [2020]).

    More research needs to be done, especially here in the United States, where we are 20 years behind Europe in this area, and even more so in the Adirondacks. But we already have plenty of data and good models, which indicate that the assumption that OSWTS are preventing these compounds from reaching ground and surface water is simply false. Centralized WWTPs are better, but still do not remove enough of these organic contaminants to render most effluent environmentally safe. If anything, though, we can be thankful for the fact the WWTPs reduce the number point sources of contamination and tend to be built intentionally distant from nearby drinking water sources, which is a still great improvement over OSWTS. Many places in the Adirondacks and Catskills are particularly poorly suited to the use of OSWTS due to suboptimal soils. In some such places, certain solutes can quickly travel through soils, hundreds of feet beyond NYSDOH and APA setback requirements from wells and surface water, without diminishing significantly in concentration (Robertson et al [1991], Weiskel and Howes [1992], etc). Thus, the argument for limiting the density of houses in unsewered Adirondack areas is backed by an abundance of literature, with the EPA even suggesting that density greater than 40 OSWTS per square mile has the potential to adversely impact groundwater (Carroll and Goonetilleke [2005], Whitehead and Geary [2003], Yates [1985], etc). Obviously, even basic safety criteria are probably not being met in most places in upstate NY.

    Carroll, S., & Goonetilleke, A. (2005). Assessment of high density of onsite wastewater treatment systems on a shallow groundwater coastal aquifer using PCA. Environmetrics: The Official Journal of the International Environmetrics Society, 16(3), 257-274.
    Cormio, P. G., & Schuphan, I. (2008). Metabolism of nonylphenol by human P450-recombinant yeast and assessment of the xeno-hormone potency of different isomers and their chlorinated derivatives (No. RWTH-CONV-208056). Fachgruppe Biologie.
    Daughton, C. G., & Ternes, T. A. (1999). Pharmaceuticals and personal care products in the environment: agents of subtle change?. Environmental health perspectives, 107(suppl 6), 907-938.
    Del Rosario, K. L., Mitra, S., Humphrey Jr, C. P., & O’Driscoll, M. A. (2014). Detection of pharmaceuticals and other personal care products in groundwater beneath and adjacent to onsite wastewater treatment systems in a coastal plain shallow aquifer. Science of the total environment, 487, 216-223.
    Ebele, A. J., Abdallah, M. A. E., & Harrad, S. (2017). Pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs) in the freshwater aquatic environment. Emerging Contaminants, 3(1), 1-16.
    Halling-Sørensen, B. N. N. S., Nielsen, S. N., Lanzky, P. F., Ingerslev, F., Lützhøft, H. H., & Jørgensen, S. E. (1998). Occurrence, fate and effects of pharmaceutical substances in the environment-A review. Chemosphere, 36(2), 357-393.
    Hantzsche, N., & Finnemore, E. (1992). Predicting Ground‐Water Nitrate‐Nitrogen Impacts. Ground Water, 30(4), 490-499.
    Heberer, T. (2002). Occurrence, fate, and removal of pharmaceutical residues in the aquatic environment: a review of recent research data. Toxicology letters, 131(1-2), 5-17.
    Kolpin, D. W., Furlong, E. T., Meyer, M. T., Thurman, E. M., Zaugg, S. D., Barber, L. B., & Buxton, H. T. (2002). Pharmaceuticals, hormones, and other organic wastewater contaminants in US streams, 1999− 2000: A national reconnaissance. Environmental science & technology, 36(6), 1202-1211.
    Kolpin, D. W., Skopec, M., Meyer, M. T., Furlong, E. T., & Zaugg, S. D. (2004). Urban contribution of pharmaceuticals and other organic wastewater contaminants to streams during differing flow conditions. Science of the Total Environment, 328(1-3), 119-130.
    Loraine, G. A., & Pettigrove, M. E. (2006). Seasonal variations in concentrations of pharmaceuticals and personal care products in drinking water and reclaimed wastewater in southern California. Environmental Science & Technology, 40(3), 687-695.
    Luckenbach, T., & Epel, D. (2005). Nitromusk and polycyclic musk compounds as long-term inhibitors of cellular xenobiotic defense systems mediated by multidrug transporters. Environmental health perspectives, 113(1), 17-24.
    Montes-Grajales, D., Fennix-Agudelo, M., & Miranda-Castro, W. (2017). Occurrence of personal care products as emerging chemicals of concern in water resources: A review. Science of the Total Environment, 595, 601-614.
    Nowak, M., Zawadzka, K., & Lisowska, K. (2020). Occurrence of methylisothiazolinone in water and soil samples in Poland and its biodegradation by Phanerochaete chrysosporium. Chemosphere, 254, 126723.
    Robertson, W. D., Cherry, J. A., & Sudicky, E. A. (1991). Ground‐water contamination from two small septic systems on sand aquifers. Groundwater, 29(1), 82-92.
    Silva, V., Silva, C., Soares, P., Garrido, E. M., Borges, F., & Garrido, J. (2020). Isothiazolinone biocides: Chemistry, biological, and toxicity profiles. Molecules, 25(4), 991.
    Stuer-Lauridsen, F., Birkved, M., Hansen, L. P., Lützhøft, H. C. H., & Halling-Sørensen, B. (2000). Environmental risk assessment of human pharmaceuticals in Denmark after normal therapeutic use. Chemosphere, 40(7), 783-793.
    Ternes, T. A., Joss, A., & Siegrist, H. (2004). Peer reviewed: scrutinizing pharmaceuticals and personal care products in wastewater treatment. Environmental science & technology, 38(20), 392A-399A.
    Tinker Jr, J. R. (1991). An analysis of nitrate‐nitrogen in ground water beneath unsewered subdivisions. Groundwater Monitoring & Remediation, 11(1), 141-150.
    Verhougstraete, M. P., Martin, S. L., Kendall, A. D., Hyndman, D. W., & Rose, J. B. (2015). Linking fecal bacteria in rivers to landscape, geochemical, and hydrologic factors and sources at the basin scale. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112(33), 10419-10424.
    Walker, W. G., Bouma, J., Keeney, D. R., & Olcott, P. G. (1973). Nitrogen transformations during subsurface disposal of septic tank effluent in sands: II. Ground water quality (Vol. 2, No. 4, pp. 521-525). American Society of Agronomy, Crop Science Society of America, and Soil Science Society of America.
    Weiskel, P. K., & Howes, B. L. (1992). Differential transport of sewage-derived nitrogen and phosphorus through a coastal watershed. Environmental Science & Technology, 26(2), 352-360.
    Whitehead, J. H., & Geary, P. M. (2000). Geotechnical aspects of domestic on‐site effluent management systems. Australian Journal of Earth Sciences, 47(1), 75-82.
    Yates, M. V. (1985). Septic tank density and ground‐water contamination. Groundwater, 23(5), 586-591.”

    • Paul says:

      JB, thanks. My experience with the agency is quite different. For a few wetland projects has been the opposite, I have had to work with multiple agencies, and they were very thorough. Multiple on-site visits, before, during, and after (including follow up inspections with the EPA (federal) to make sure they were compliant with federal laws. Again some facts would be a good idea here. Some people are just assuming they didn’t do anything.

      You say “this close to a wetland”.

      How close? Many of the people complaining about this are probably sitting on antiquated systems that service their seasonal camps some which are probably close to the shore on old setback rules or even on islands that are probably discharging almost directly into the lake. Fix those if they are really worried about water quality.

      Just wouldn’t mind a little more info and a little less inflammatory type language that isn’t backed up with some detail.

      BTW – the facts indicate that we have more loons because we got rid of DDT not because of septic rules. I have a camp on a lake that has lots of loons and Eagles – lots more than we had years ago when there was less development and traffic on the lake.

      Thanks for the other references.

      • JB says:

        Sorry for the delay…Interesting response. Again, your experience vs. mine (APA going back and forth, no one really sure which way is up, everyone saying “yep, that’s the APA for you”) illustrates that it is all too easy to generalize. My real issue with the APA has to do with some of the larger scale developments which I know for a fact that they are ushering through, especially those proposed by DEC on public lands. Living adjacent to public lands, this effects me directly, and I want them to be good neighbors–as promised by the APA Act. I don’t think that NIMBYism, connection to place, and vehement opposition to changes in environmental or small-town character, are bad things–my sum total of experience has taught me that advocates for these things are very important, and it is the lack of connection to place that creates so many of our modern problems.

        My understanding of “this close to a wetland” was based on the the article put out by USLAC on the present website (https://www.adirondackalmanack.com/2021/07/upper-saranac-coalition-apa-ruling-endangers-wetlands.html): 100 feet. Maybe I did make some assumptions and generalization about topography and other things; I’d have to do some digging to find out more, if the parcel location is even public, but, alas, vita brevis.

        As you can probably tell, I am not a huge fan of septic systems near lakes, or even worse, located near wetlands and waterways upstream of lakes. Indeed, if the critics of this plan are representative of your average lakeside Adirondack resident, they very well could have septic systems similarly placed in proximity to a waterway. I sure am glad that I do not own any structure on the shoreline of such lakes–that I do not have to put that water into my mouth–but I will still get behind anyone trying to prevent introducing this stuff into our waterways, especially those that are upstream of forever wild areas (such waterways often ultimately supply drinking water water for millions of people). Also, I, for one, would rather have DDT in my water than Prozac–DDT is less water-soluble and cancer is better than brain damage or behavioral changes, even for animals methinks (too bad we cannot ask them directly for their preference). Testing would be great, retrofitting existing systems would be great, but we need to be think incrementally both in terms of fixing past harms and preventing future ones. It’s a slippery slope that septic effluent flows down with fiendish ease.

        So, maybe emotions are flaring a bit, but that is a lesser evil–I’d rather that than APA silently becoming more and more pro-development. Don’t get me wrong, though: I do try to refrain from become too inflammatory in my thinking and speaking, because I agree that this can be a slippery slope as well. You are spot on that clearheaded analysis is paramount, and I sincerely strive to contribute in some meaningful way towards that endeavor.

        • Suzanne says:

          JB – Interesting perspective and I appreciate all of your references. The issue is exactly what you described. Proposed septic system 100 feet from the wetlands boundary and next to a moving body of water – as it meanders through the wetlands before it empties into the lake. A slippery slope indeed and no pun intended, with poor soil conditions due to wetlands and percolation rates of 0 to 1. Seems to me that the safer alternative would be to put the septic system upland where a space already exists.

    • chris cohan says:

      Wow, very comprehensive. Appreciate your input.

  6. Tim says:

    “However, based on communications, obtained by Freedom of Information Law, between applicant, or his representative, and APA employees prior to ruling, the APA assured approval before a permit amendment request was submitted.”
    Reminds me of the debate over upgrading the road to Boreas Ponds. The DEC/APA asked for comments from the public at the same time they were already improving the road. I will never bother to comment again.

    • chris cohan says:


      ” Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” rings true with the current APA.

  7. Scott Ireland says:

    I suspect the APA could do their job better if it were fully staffed with knowledgeable and experienced commissioners, instead of just half-staffed with political hacks.

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