Cuomo's strike at hospitals shocks watershed board

At an emergency meeting yesterday, watershed leaders scrambled to respond to a surprise attack by New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo on local hospitals that have been disposing of drugs by flushing them down sinks and toilets.

“I feel the action was wrong,” Jim Eisel, the supervisor of Harpersfield and chairman of the Delaware County Board of Supervisors, told his fellow board members of the Catskill Watershed Corporation (CWC) on January 28 at the CWC’s headquarters in Margaretville.

“It discriminates against the people in the watershed communities,” he said. “These are facilities we count on. They're very rural and very poor.”

On January 12, Cuomo announced that five local hospitals and nursing homes, including the O’Connor Hospital in Delhi and Margaretville Memorial Hospital in Margaretville , would pay fines and change their policies. 

The attorney general claimed the hospitals' actions are illegal statewide, but his office targeted only hospitals inside New York City's watershed. And the settlements they signed impose stricter conditions than current state and federal laws require. That, according to lawyers and several board members at the meeting, effectively created new regulations for the region with the stroke of a pen.

 “We are being made an example of,” Eisel said. “This would never happen in New York City. None of this would see the light of day. They think we're a bunch of podunks here.”

The group’s executive director, Alan Rosa, said the CWC had been working on the pharmaceutical disposal problem since at least 2007. It had conducted water quality studies to ensure that New York City water was safe and had even reached out to the AG's office for help on the issue.

“It wasn't like it was something that just fell out of the sky: 'We're poisoning all the people in the city of New York!'” he said. “We were ahead of the curve on this.”

Several board members expressed fear that the settlements – which require new record-keeping, staff training and waste disposal policies – will prove extremely costly for the already-struggling Margaretville and O'Connor hospitals.

Middletown supervisor and CWC member Leonard Utter asked, “Is New York City going to pick up the tab for the increased expenses that the rest of the hospitals in the state are not subject to?”

No one offered an answer.

Others worried that Cuomo’s actions have forced the Margaretville and O'Connor hospitals to violate the terms of the $1 million loans each were granted by the CWC in 2003.

When they signed for the loans, the hospitals guaranteed that they would comply with state and local environmental regulations. But by signing the settlements with Cuomo's office, the hospitals stated that they had been breaking the law all along.

That could have ramifications for the CWC as the lender, cautioned CWC president Georgie Lepke.

“Are they still as viable as they were when we lent them money?” she asked. “Does it put us in jeopardy?”

Kevin Young, a lawyer representing Kirkside, a small nursing home in Roxbury that refused to sign a settlement with Cuomo's office, warned that Cuomo’s action put the entire decade-old watershed agreement between the region, the state and New York City in jeopardy.

“It was understood during [the 1997] negotiations [that] the state would not unilaterally develop a special regulatory program and force it down our throats,” he said. “If we allow them to develop regulatory programs without rulemaking, we're at risk.”

Several other facilities investigated by the AG's office refused to sign settlements. It remains unclear whether or how they will be prosecuted, or whether the scope of the investigation might be broadened to include places like doctors' offices and veterinarians, a prospect that worried CWC lawyer Tim Cox.

With no representative from Cuomo's office present, board members could only speculate on what the AG’s next move might be. But Eisel, who said that he had met with someone in the AG.’s office, reported that there was some hope for relief.

“The AG is rethinking this whole thing right now,” he said.

Reached by phone, watershed agricultural inspector Philip Bein, who spearheaded the action on behalf of the attorney general, declined to comment.

At noon, the board voted to table the issue of what to do about the hospital loans until their regular meeting on Tuesday. Another meeting with hospital administrators is scheduled for today at 10am.

Why is an attempt to stop drug-flushing drawing so much fire from the Catskills? For more info on the history of the CWC, click on Background: A little context.