The suspense over whether environmental groups would sue to stop Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's construction of a new $3.9 billion Tappan Zee Bridge has ended with the state's agreement on Wednesday to enforce stricter construction guidelines, invite more public input and fund $11.5 million in programs to restore damaged wildlife habitat and waterfront communities.
With those commitments in hand, two key environmental groups are supporting the project.
The understanding is stated in a permit issued Wednesday by the state Department of Environmental Conservation. The permit clears the way for the state Thruway Authority to begin the five-year process of building a pair of new bridge spans to replace the existing three-mile structure between Westchester and Rockland counties.
"We are making record progress in building a new bridge for the Hudson Valley while ensuring the comprehensive protection [of] the environment and the natural beauty of this region," Cuomo said.
The environmental groups were also positive about the understanding.
"We're pleased with the agreement," said Phillip Musegaas, Hudson River program director for Ossining-based Riverkeeper. "We think we have a good framework for communicating and working with the Thruway Authority and the DEC."
"It was a strong outcome," added Scenic Hudson's Steve Rosenberg, who is senior vice president for the Poughkeepsie-based group. "There was a lot at stake for the communities and the river."
The announced agreement comes a day before a federal deadline for the filing of lawsuits that could stop the start of construction. Both Riverkeeper and Scenic Hudson can still sue for violations of the terms of the permit, which is standard, in such cases.
In the give and take of negotiating a deal, "it sounds like they got a lot," said Prof. Michael Gerrard, Columbia University's director of the Center for Climate Change Law.
THE PERMIT IS A ROADMAP
The permit issued includes limits on dredging and other work that are more detailed and demanding than what was presented in a draft permit published for public review in late January. It also includes new requirements, such as the monitoring of fish before construction gets under way and rules overseeing cement mixing and pouring -- which will stir up the river's polluted sediment.
To increase public input, project officials have agreed to meet quarterly with Riverkeeper and Scenic Hudson and to post online all permit-related reports, plans and data.
A new memorandum of understanding attached to the permit provides a $1.5 million pot of seed money to help nearby communities with riverfront development projects. The funds will be "potentially available" to Tarrytown, Sleepy Hollow, Irvington, Upper Nyack, South Nyack, Grand View, Piedmont and Orangetown, and will help address concerns that riverfront growth "would be paralyzed and put on hold because of the onset of construction," Rosenberg said.
The $11.5 million to restore wildlife habitats and for waterfront communities is part of the overall $3.9 billion cost of the project, state officials said.
Measures in the permit to protect wildlife include:
• Restoring fish spawning habitat.
• Replacing 13 acres of oyster beds.
• Clearing 200 acres of invasive species and restoring Crumkill Creek in Piermont Marsh.
• Reducing stormwater pollution in Sparkill Creek.
• Restoring Piermont Marsh wetlands.
• Protecting fish from injury, death and disrupted spawning by building sound barriers during pile driving and imposing seasonal limits on dredging during peak migration periods
• Monitoring sturgeon movement during construction.
• Launching a campaign to reach out to the commercial fishing industry to save Atlantic sturgeon accidentally caught in their nets in the Atlantic Ocean. The funding of scientific study of sturgeon life in the river will also be beefed up, to map their habitat and eating habits, as well as to tag them with sound transmitters to assist study of their movements.
POSITIVE REACTION FROM HUDSON VALLEY
Around the region, the new permit was applauded as an important step toward addressing a range of bridge-related environmental issues.
"I think it does as much as it possibly can to protect the fish and still let the bridge happen," said Gil Hawkins, environmental director for the Hudson River Fishermen's Association. In addition to helping endangered species -- the Atlantic Sturgeon is one -- the permit regulations protect all fish that migrate between the river and the ocean, including striped bass, herring, shad and eel, Hawkins said.
Gerrard, the Columbia professor, said that broad environmental concerns remain.
"I will probably want to look at what the environmental impact statement says about greenhouse gases and climate change," he said.
There are unresolved transit issues relating to the bridge, as well.
"This agreement shows Riverkeeper and Scenic Hudson continue to put Hudson River ecology and environmental concerns first, which is why they've supported transit on the Tappan Zee Bridge and in the I-287 corridor," said Tri-State Transportation Campaign executive director Veronica Vanterpool.