Watershed drug case leaves unanswered questions

By Jay Braman Jr.
How to safely dispose of pharmaceutical waste from hospitals and nursing homes in the New York City Watershed is not a new issue. As of today there is no approved plan for how to do it that satisfies all of the regulatory masters who rule the watershed. But once a policy is formulated and becomes law, all of the healthcare facilities in the watershed will be forced to comply.
But in the meantime, those facilities should be treated like all others in the state.
That seems to be the position taken last week by local officials who met to discuss recent demands made by the New York State Attorney General’s Office about disposing of pharmaceutical waste.
What was once flushed down the toilet may now need to be shipped across state lines for incineration.
Representatives from several health facilities met last week together with Catskill Watershed Corporation officials and the Chairman of the Coalition of Watershed Towns to discuss how to handle the dilemma.
The matter is one familiar to Watershed residents. The actions of the attorney general, according to Coalition officials, single out and discriminate against the region by requiring actions and expenses that the rest of state does not need to comply with.
In the early 1990s the City of New York proposed draconian regulations for the region. The Coalition of Watershed Towns was formed to negotiate with the City. In 1997 a deal was made that compensated upstate for having to adhere to tougher regulations designed to protect water quality.
Alan Rosa, now the executive director of the Catskill Watershed Corporation, was the Supervisor of the Town of Middletown in 1997, a founding member of the Coalition of Watershed Towns, and the Coalition’s chief negotiator during talks that led to the Memorandum of Agreement that year. The agreement outlined a host of programs, paid for by New York City, that would protect water quality. The common theme of the agreement was that anything the city wanted that was over and above the rules and regulations for the rest of the state the city would have to pay for.
Rosa noted that the disposal of pharmaceuticals was discussed during those talks by the Coalition but it was determined by the city and the state, back then anyway, that it was not a critical element of water quality protection because there were only miniscule trace levels of the material in the water.
“We said give us a program to deal with it,” Rosa said. “They didn’t.”
Now, with the attorney general’s demands, many wish such a program did exist.
As far as Attorney General Cuomo is concerned, pharmaceutical waste in the Watershed should be incinerated. But there is no pharmaceutical incinerator in the state and health care officials say they must now hire contractors to ship the waste across state borders for disposal, but it is not yet clear exactly who can do the transporting.
In the meantime the waste is being stored.
Unclear is whether this is just the tip of the iceberg. While Attorney General Cuomo has so far targeted only about 15 facilities in the Watershed, there is concern that eventually all medical providers such doctors, dentists, even veterinarians, will need to comply.
Rosa said that the attorney general’s office is acting prematurely. State and Federal agencies are at work right now preparing plans for how to handle the waste, but until those plans are complete no one really knows how to deal with it.
“It’s new territory,” Rosa said, adding that no one in the Watershed is seeking a right to pollute the streams with drugs, they simply expect to be treated the same way as everyone else.
“They (the attorney general’s office) said they did it because we supply the water for half of the state,” Rosa said. “Well, what about the other half?”
New York’s attorney general reached an agreement with some, but not all healthcare facilities, to stop “disposing” their pharmaceutical waste into the New York City Watershed following threatening notices of fines up to $37,000 per day should the facilities not agree to the attorney general’s terms.
O’Connor Hospital in Delhi; Margaretville Hospital and Mountainside Residential Care Center in Margaretville and Countryside Care Center, a nursing home in Delhi, have agreed to redirect their pharmaceutical waste to proper waste management facilities. They also have been ordered to pay civil penalties for prior infractions and for the cost of the state’s investigation, and must bring all waste management practices up to comply with both state and federal codes. 
In addition, each facility must spearhead “take back” efforts, making sure that area households properly dispose of any pharmaceutical waste. 
Assemblyman Clifford Crouch and Senator John Bonacic, have contacted the attorney general and asked that his office back off.