NYS Attorney General Moves to Curb Pharmaceutical Discharges into NY Waterways

One of the more exciting educational reforms in New York City and around the nation in recent years has been the creation of new schools whose missions include environmental learning.

In a perceptive look at this trend the other day, Mireya Navarro and Sindya Bhandoo of the New York Times reported that there are now more than two hundred “green” public and private schools around the country-- with at least 11 traditional and charter schools having been established in the last six years just in New York City. 

The first such school in Big Apple was the High School for Environmental Studies, which opened its doors on Manhattan’s west side in 1992.  It was hoped that this school would become a model for urban environmental education and, in many ways, that wish is being fulfilled. 

With the support of the non-profit Friends of the High School for Environmental Studies and a dedicated staff of faculty and teachers, the number of applicants to the school has increased ten-fold.  And if today was any indication, the HSES students are certainly getting a hands-on educational experience.

A few of my colleagues and I headed up to the High School for Environmental Studies this morning to see New York State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo treat the students to a quick lesson in environmental problem-solving. 

We entered the beautiful art deco auditorium on the 6th floor.  It was filled with students who were buzzing with excitement.  (The students, I bet, were both genuinely excited about the prospect of hearing from the Attorney General Cuomo and thrilled by the change in their daily classroom schedule occasioned by the high level visit.)

I was ushered into a side room to meet their proud Principal, Shirley Matthews, who moments later got the assembly underway.

The primary purpose of the gathering was for Attorney General Cuomo to announce that he and his staff had reached groundbreaking settlements with five upstate health care facilities to curb their disposal of pharmaceuticals into local waterways.

This was a newsworthy and welcome announcement because the improper disposal of pharmaceuticals – both prescription and non-prescription drugs – has emerged in recent years as one of the most worrisome long-term threats to the nation’s drinking water supply.  And the five facilities in question here were all located in within the Catskill/Delaware watershed, which provides unfiltered drinking water to nine million downstate New Yorkers.

The settlements require the five healthcare facilities to immediately end their discharges of pharmaceutical wastes into waterways within the Catskill/Delaware watershed and to make arrangements with waste management facilities for the safe disposal of their unused pharmaceuticals. 

In another innovative aspect of the settlement, the facilities all agreed to create “take back programs” so that people living in the area of these health care facilities could drop off their unused pharmaceuticals at the facilities and be assured that such wastes would be disposed of properly. 

Attorney General Cuomo -- who had the students laughing and cheering when he described his initial “fear” of meeting Principal Matthews -- painted a broad theme that connected the day’s news with New York State’s history of progressivism on issues like occupational safety and environmental protection. 

The Attorney General’s first-rate staff, who helped make today’s precedent-setting settlement possible, stayed out of the limelight, but deserve our thanks.  They include attorneys Mylan Dinerstein, Katherine Kennedy, Phil Bein and scientists Charlie Silver and Peter Washburn.

I was given a few moments to address the assembly.  I talked about the growing evidence from around the country that pharmaceuticals -- antibiotics, anti-depressants, chemotherapy drugs, steroids, stimulants, hormones and so forth – were now being detected in very small amounts in many of the nation’s waterways.  And I warned of the risk that even low levels of these drugs could pose over long periods of time to public health and natural resources. 

Still, I noted that New York City’s drinking water today remained high in quality and in full compliance with state and federal health standards.   Attorney General Cuomo hit the right note in his press release:  “Today’s announcement is a preventative step toward stemming an emerging threat to New York’s safe and high quality drinking water supply.” 

To be sure, there is much to do to fully resolve the threat posed by improper pharmaceuticals in waterways.  For more info on the nationwide problems posed by pharmaceuticals, take a look at this excellent article by Bottlemania author Elizabeth Royte and at the well-documented U.S. Senate testimony of my colleague, NRDC Senior Scientist Jennifer Sass.

The Obama Administration has recently taken a series of steps to ratchet up the federal role in safeguarding human health and the environment from this threat. 

Here’s hoping that in New York, today’s settlements will prove to be a model that can be followed by other health care facilities around the state and that today’s settlements will lend further momentum to the nationwide effort to curtail this worrisome threat to our rivers, streams, reservoirs and other ecological resources.

David Carpenter, Director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at the University of Albany, was the final speaker.  He capped off the official presentation in fine style.

When the presentations were concluded and the assembly dismissed, members of the press swarmed forward from the rear of the auditorium to surround the Attorney General.  They shot questions at him in rapid fire.

Here we were at the High School for Environmental Studies.  But all the tough questions were being directed, not at the students, but at State’s Attorney General.  Now that’s what I call educational reform.