Preliminary Interior Dep't Monticello Raceway Decision at Odds with Statute, Would Leave Communities Without Significant Voice on Massive Development Plan

ALBANY (September 11, 2006) - The announcement by the U.S. Interior Department's Bureau of Indian Affairs that it plans to forgo a full study of how a proposed Las Vegas-style casino at Sullivan County's Monticello Raceway site would affect traffic, air quality, and water pollution ignores longstanding community concerns and violates the National Environmental Policy Act, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

The preliminary decision also runs counter to the agency's own prior determinations in the sensitive Catskills region, according to NRDC, and will result in a far less open approval process.

"If this decision stands, officials in Washington would limit the voice of Sullivan County citizens in decisions that could change the entire way of life in their communities," said Richard Schrader, NRDC's New York State Legislative Director. "It defies the law and ignores the right of ordinary people to have a say in their own future."

Plans for the half-billion-dollar Monticello Raceway casino include 766,000 square feet of floor area, 4,200 casino gambling positions, a 600-seat theater, and a parking lot for 4,800 cars and buses. Nearly six million visitors a year are projected.

Federal law is supposed to provide broad public participation in the environmental review process. The more limited Environmental Assessment, which could be approved after 30 days, would allow the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe and its developer partners, the Nevada-based Empire Resorts, Inc., to proceed with the sprawling off-reservation casino without that significant public input. The comment period starts this Tuesday, September 12.

If the Interior Department does not change its determination, the casino developers would avoid a full environmental impact review, including how this massive development would affect traffic, air quality and water pollution. Nor would they have to examine the cumulative impact of the Monticello Raceway casino and the other Vegas-style casinos proposed for the county in the last 18 months.

High on the list of concerns: Huge traffic jams on the area's already crowded roads. For example, independent consultant, Sam Schwartz LLC, predicts major traffic back-ups through the southern Catskills, at the Harriman Interchange and across the Tappan Zee Bridge if a casino is built in Sullivan County.

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires a full environmental impact statement where the federal government is involved in a "major federal action" significantly affecting the environment. And, notably, officials have previously required full environmental impact studies for other Catskill casino schemes, including an earlier proposal by the St. Regis Tribe itself to build at the nearby Kutsher's Sports Camp.

"Precedent is on the side of Sullivan County citizens," Schrader said. "Going forward our goal will be to make sure they can get all the facts before this Vegas-sized gamble gets any further."

New York State Governor George Pataki also must formally agree with the Interior Department's decision in order for the developers to operate a casino at the Raceway. NRDC, which has been working with an array of local groups in opposing casino development in the Catskills, is evaluating next steps, including legal options.