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Lawsuit Challenges New York's Misuse of Clean Water Act Funds

Lawsuit Challenges New York's Misuse of Clean Water Act Funds

Riverkeeper, Waterkeeper Alliance and Environmental Advocates of New York announced today that they have filed a lawsuit in the New York state supreme court against New York state officials and agencies, looking to stop the state from using federal Clean Water Act funds for the Tappan Zee Bridge project. Those charged include the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, Environmental Facilities Corporation, Thruway Authority and Public Authorities Control Board, as well as approximately 18 board members and executives of these agencies.

Environmental groups—and the EPA—say rebuilding the Tappan Zee Bridge over the Hudson River is not a legitimate use of Clean Water Act funds.
Photo credit: Shutterstock

New York state has proposed to take $511 million from the Clean Water State Revolving Fund (CWSRF) for bridge construction projects, including dredging, pile driving and demolition. The Tappan Zee project wasn't included in the state's CWSRF Intended Use Plan finalized in February 2014 but was mysteriously added four months later with no public notice or comment, violating Clean Water Act requirements.

The project was not only approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), but in a Sept. 16 letter, the EPA rejected $482 million of this loan, saying, "Construction activities arising from transportation projects do not advance water quality, and CWSRF funding should not be used for these purposes." The environmental groups want a court order to enforce the EPA decision and prevent similar improper diversion of funds in the future, since the state is claiming it doesn't need EPA approval to divert these funds.

"The EPA took an important step in disallowing the brunt of this loan," said Paul Gallay, president of Riverkeeper, which has been monitoring the Tappan Zee project for six years and pressuring the state over poor dredging practices and inadequate monitoring of endangered species, as well as improper funding. "However, Albany has vowed to appeal EPA's decision. The surest way to protect this vital funding source for its intended purpose is to make sure the court has jurisdiction to enforce the Clean Water Act as necessary.”

"We were deeply disappointed to learn of the state’s plan to divert federal Clean Water Act funding for a major construction project that certainly won’t improve water quality,” said Waterkeeper Alliance executive director Marc Yaggi. “Allowing this misuse of funds could set a dangerous national precedent spurring other states to raid federal monies designed to give us clean water. In the vernacular of this holiday season, the state’s economic trick isn’t a treat for our waterways and communities.”

The environmental groups are not just concerned about the money being diverted, but the process used to do so.

"EPA did not make any findings in its ruling with respect to the grossly illegal process the state utilized when it fast-tracked the approvals of these loans without public input," said Daniel E. Estrin of the Pace Environmental Litigation Clinic, which is handling the lawsuit. "We cannot and will not stand by and allow the state to steal from the public its statutory and regulatory rights to participate in the CWSRF decision process, which are expressly guaranteed under federal and state law.”

The litigants pointed out that while the state wants to use funds for bridge demolition and construction, New York's water needs are being ignored. They point out that on the same day this past June that the state Environmental Facilities Corporation voted unanimously to approve the Tappan Zee funding, there were two water main breaks in Syracuse that shut down streets and left city residents without water.

"This program has done tremendous work for decades, including helping communities right here in New York to upgrade and protect residents from outdated sewage systems and other infrastructure problems," said Peter Iwanowicz, executive director of Environmental Advocates of New York. "Communities across the state are in desperate need of funding for water infrastructure improvements and the Cuomo administration should be working with the EPA to develop the funding plan necessary.”

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In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

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With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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