Gov. Makes Official Casino Announcement - Legal Hurdles & Environmental Troubles Remain

Last Wednesday, I wrote about Governor Paterson’s surprise bid to build a Las-Vegas-style casino on the banks of the Neversink River, one of the most important freshwater ecosystems in North America.  Not only could this casino pose a threat to New York City’s nearby water supply, because the Neversink is also a major tributary to the lower Delaware River, it also could pose risks to the drinking water of Philadelphia and millions of other downstream users.

According to unofficial reports last week, Paterson was seeking to allow the Stockbridge-Munsee Tribe of Wisconsin the rights to build a massive casino along a one-mile stretch of this famed river (the birthplace of fly fishing) in exchange for settling pending land claims against New York.  To make this deal work, Paterson was also seeking to use rarely used provisions of federal law that allow gambling on “off-reservation” Indian lands. Today, he made his announcement official – but it was significantly toned down from the buzz going around Albany last week.

As I outlined last week, the Governor’s plan is a long-shot and he doesn’t actually have the authority to approve this project on his own.  First, the casino still requires a full environmental review under federal law to assess the heavy traffic, air and water pollution, as well as the destruction of the beautiful landscape, that this proposal would bring.  Second, the federal Interior Department would have to agree to take the land into “federal trust” and approve gambling at this Catskills site – even though it rejected essentially the same proposal at the same Neversink River site three years ago, and there’s no indication that the Interior Department has changed its position.   And third, because the deal settles outstanding land claims against New York State, it would need to get separate approval by Congress, federal officials and the New York State Legislature – hardly an easy task.

Over the last five days, Paterson’s proposal has faced overwhelming opposition– environmental and non-environmental – to this atrociously located casino.  As the New York Times wrote in an editorial on Saturday:

“Gov. David Paterson of New York has only a few weeks left in office. But that hasn’t stopped him from making a bad deal with an out-of-state Indian tribe to build a casino in the Catskills.... The deal will need a revised environmental impact statement and approval from the federal Interior Department. And it will almost certainly go through the courts. Those hurdles are really the only good news about this whole last-minute Catskill deal from a departing Governor Paterson. “

Despite this chorus of opposition, the Governor is still forging ahead in the remaining 40 days he is in office. 

In one press release issued today, he announced the signing of a so-called “compact” that would govern gambling operations at any future casino on the Neversink River.  But the Governor is making empty promises -- he does not have unilateral authority to sign-off on gambling at this site.   Only the federal government has this power and there are no indications that they are ready to approve this controversial plan. 

And, in a second press release, he announced the signing of a land claim settlement agreement with the Tribe. However, this agreement – which must be finalized before any casino can be built – is far from being a done deal because it still requires congressional, state legislative and federal approvals. 

In short, Governor Paterson can’t green light this casino on his own.  And the fact remains that this is about as terrible a location to build a gargantuan casino like this as one can imagine.