Cuomo muddies the waters on Gallagher Beach

State's refusal to respond to press inquiries typical of the administration's hostility towards the public's right to know
Reporting, analysis and commentary
by Jim Heaney, editor of Investigative Post

A month-and-a-half ago, Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared his intent to open Gallagher Beach near the South Buffalo – Lackawanna border for public swimming. Congressman Brian Higgins is pushing to open the beach as soon as next summer.

Not so fast, concluded an analysis by Erie County’s former senior public health engineer.

He concluded opening Gallagher Beach for swimming is “probably impractical” because of a raft of environmental concerns. The analysis, coupled with reporting by our environmental reporter Dan Telvock, painted a picture of a beach whose waters rest in a harbor basin contaminated with PCBs and whose neighbors include two Superfund sites that are leaching toxins into Lake Erie and the Outer Harbor.

This begs the question: What is the state going to do to ensure the water is safe to swim in?

Cuomo and Co. aren’t saying. In fact, they’re not talking, period. At least not to the press. What little they’ve said – via a couple of scripted emails – is disquieting.

The state has a bathing beach code that requires vigorous water testing before a beach can be opened for public swimming. You’d think the code would require such testing at Gallagher Beach. You know, state code, state beach.

Think again.

A spokesman for the state Health Department told Telvock in an email that the state beach code “does not apply” to beaches operated by the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, who, it just so happens, would manage Gallagher Beach. Nor are other state agencies bound by the code, unless specifically designated, the email said.

This begged the question: What, if any tests, does the state intend to conduct of the water at Gallagher Beach?

Telvock was told he’d have to ask the Office of Parks. He called them eight times over the course of a week. He emailed another three times. No response.

I then followed up with the governor’s press office. A couple of phone calls, a couple of emails. Still no response from the parks people.

You get the feeling the Cuomo crowd doesn’t want to talk about this, that they would just as soon have us folks in the press dummy up until it’s time to cover the beach’s grand opening?

Telvock did get a response, of sorts, from the office of County Executive Mark Poloncarz, who had previously told Dan “I myself wouldn’t swim” at the beach until tests prove the water is safe.

A week later when our original story ran, the county was done talking about the beach.

“It is a bit inappropriate for us as Erie County to comment simply because it’s a state park and the state’s prerogative in testing,” Mark Cornell, the county director of policy and communications, said in an email.

“I just spoke with someone at the NYS Parks Department and they asked for you to call Randy Simmons [sic] in their Albany office … He noted that there are plans for testing but that Randy could fill you in better on the specifics.”

Trouble is, Randy Simons is one of the Parks bureaucrats who has refused to respond to telephone calls and emails. Three of them, in fact.

So, to sum up, there some sort of plans … for some sort of testing … that nobody wants to talk about … at least not to anyone in the business of informing the public.

This passes for transparency in Cuomoland.

Which brings me to another point: The lengths to which state government under this governor goes to manipulate and suppress information. It’s gotten beyond the point of ridiculous.

Once upon a time, reporters could call a state government office and speak to rank-and-file staff members who actually knew what they were talking about. That direct access has diminished over time with the deployment of so-called “public information officers.” I stress “so-called.”

The good ones act as a traffic cop of sorts, helping to direct reporters to knowledgeable staff and information. Many of the ones I deal with these days function largely to thwart the work of reporters, to the point of sometimes flat-out refusing to even respond to phone calls and emails.

For this, these folks earn $75,000, $85,000, $95,000 or more – plus those generous state benefits.

Consider what Telvock has encountered in his reporting on Gallagher Beach.

On Sept. 19, he asked the state Department of Environmental Conservation for documentation that would show what it knows about the water at Gallagher Beach. He’s still waiting for a response. In the interim, the DEC staff spoke on background to verify information Telvock gleaned from reports he obtained online. But when it came time for officials to comment on the record on the most basic of issues, the flak told Dan to go talk to the Health Department.

The state Health Department waited nearly two weeks – until after our deadline had passed on our first story before answering a handful of our questions – kind of – about the beach code. Those answers raised more questions than they answered, but the department refused to entertain any further questions. Go talk to the Office of Parks, they said.

From which Telvock has heard nothing but the sounds of silence. After days of ignoring his calls, Telvock took to Twitter, counting the days that parks officials had refused to respond. They brushed that off, too.

This, unfortunately, is the way the Cuomo administration often deals with the press. News organizations across the state are complaining about it with increasing regularity.

Which brings me to my final point: Let’s suppose that the state is, in fact, going to conduct water quality tests at Gallagher Beach. Should the public take the results at face value?

I ask because I’m seeing numerous examples of state government under Cuomo politicizing the work of its departments and agencies.

Not that it didn’t go on before him. Of course, it did. To the same degree, I’m not sure. I kind of doubt it.

Consider the so-called white paper the state prepared last year that concluded there’s nothing wrong with air quality around the Peace Bridge that can be linked to the 6 million cars and trucks that cross it every year.

The report was released about the time Cuomo was concocting his ill-fated plan to seize control of the American side of the bridge plaza in order to expand it over neighborhood objections. The white paper ignored an extensive body of research that has determined bridge traffic does, in fact, harm public health in the adjoining neighborhood.

One respected scientist dismissed the white paper for what he termed “a distinct lack of science.”

More recently, there’s Cuomo’s handling of the Moreland Commission he established with much ballyhoo over the summer to investigate public corruption. The New York Times recently reported that the Cuomo administration started to interfere with the commission’s work once it started nosing around about some of the governor’s campaign contributors. There’s now talk that Cuomo may disband the commission.

All this does not exactly inspire confidence over the prospects of an objective analysis of water quality at Gallagher Beach.

This is not to say the fix is in. Or that the beach is necessarily unsafe for swimming. But the haughty way the Cuomo Crowd is responding to questions shows, at best, a contempt for the public’s right to know.

And perhaps worse when you consider that a half mile from the beach – upstream at that – cancer-causing benzene at levels 100,000 times higher than permissible under federal drinking water standards has been found in groundwater. Moreover, groundwater has been found leaching into Lake Erie from the Bethlehem Steel site, although what precisely is making its way into the lake is undetermined.

You’d think the beach’s proximity to toxic Superfund sites would give the politicians and bureaucrats pause. Or at least give them reason to assure the public they’re going to take a long, hard look at water quality.

But officials are already lackadaisical about water quality in and around the beach.

Signs permit people to wade into the water to wind surf and jet ski. Swimming is a no-no because, according to signs, no lifeguards are on duty.

Fishing is permitted despite a longstanding government advisory to limit the consumption of fish caught in the Outer Harbor because of PCB contamination. In fact, the state tacitly encouraged fishing by building a pier at Gallagher Beach two years ago.

So, in effect, the state is helping residents catch fish they’re supposed to be wary of eating.

There are no signs around the pier warning fishermen to limit how much of their catch they eat, so it’s “anglers beware.” Whether the Cuomo administration takes a similar laissez-faire attitude towards  swimmers remains to be seen. For right now, mum’s the word.

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For more from Investigative Post on Gallagher Beach and the Cuomo administration’s efforts to suppress information: