The environmental group Riverkeeper is asking state conservation officials to take some extra time to address the impact of building a new $3.9 billion Tappan Zee Bridge -- even if that means delaying the issuance of construction permits for a month or two.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation -- now about a month away from its own deadline to finalize the draft permit for construction -- should extend the deadline to adequately consider comments which were made by residents, environmentalists and experts during four public DEC public hearings last week, said Phillip Musegaas, Riverkeeper's Hudson River program director.
Musegass stressed that the Ossining-based group's request is highly unlikely to tie up one of the largest public infrastructure projects in the country. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is still seeking financing for the proposed new bridge.
"The state is still waiting for the approval of its federal funding request, and the state still needs to release a plan for how to pay for the bridge," Musegaas said. "Working through this permit process should not inject additional delay to the project."
Riverkeeper officials voiced their own concerns about the bridge in detail during last week's hearings, which took place in Nanuet and Tarrytown. On Tuesday, the group submitted a 47-page comment in response to the state's Feb. 19 deadline for public feedback on the draft permit. While the comments covered many points made earlier by Riverkeeper, it added a call for DEC to work out more extensive details on environmental protections before issuing a final permit. The group also requested an option for administrative hearings to be held on the draft permitting process, if needed.
Told of Riverkeeper's continuing concern, State Thruway Authority spokesman Dan Weiller repeated assurances that the agency is working hard to minimize the environmental impact of the bridge project.
"The environmental mitigation measures for the New NY Bridge project include stringent requirements and cutting edge construction techniques to protect the Hudson River, its fish and other aquatic life," Weiller said. "Independent experts will be on site during construction to make sure all permit requirements are enforced. This project will require substantially less dredging than even the environmental review contemplated."
Riverkeeper is asking the state to protect the Hudson River during construction of the new bridge by setting specific standards for cement mixing, by re-examining dredging procedures and by increasing funding for mitigation measures to restore wildlife habitats that are destroyed during what is expected to be a five-year-construction process.
On the issue of sediments, the group wants the DEC to set legal standards on how much polluted sediment can be stirred up from the river's bottom as cement is mixed and poured. The group is requesting that the state remove sediment buildups that already surround the existing bridge's pilings.
The DEC agreed that the bridge builder, Tappan Zee Constructors, should remove one sediment heap. Riverkeeper has said there are others sitting under the existing bridge. All of them contain high levels of contamination from PCBs and heavy metals that have accumulated for decades in the Hudson River, once home to scores of riverfront factories.
Other issues on Riverkeeper's list call for removal of any mention of blasting from the draft permit. Blasting has been ruled out, but Riverkeeper sees discussion of blasting as a potential loophole. The group also wants comprehensive water monitoring during the period of construction.
Riverkeeper has said that the $8 million that the DEC is spending on restoring the river's ecology should be beefed up. The group's comments mention that when the State of Virginia built a shorter and much less expensive bridge, it provided $50 million in mitigation.
The current construction plan anticipates that 8 acres of oyster beds will be destroyed during construction. Those acres are to be replaced -- and supplemented -- by 13 acres of new oyster beds, according to the present plan. But Riverkeeper wants even more oyster beds. Other additional measures sought by Riverkeeper include restoring areas of Piermont Marsh and Sparkill Creek and conducting studies of the river's endangered Atlantic sturgeon.
"Our goal is to increase the amount of mitigation, make for a stronger permit and protect the river as the project goes forward," Musegaas said.
In an email to Newsday, DEC spokeswoman Emily DeSantis said, "We are reviewing Riverkeeper's comments."