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Does Mayor Michael Bloomberg have a different take on building a $700 million filtration plant for the Croton water system than his predecessor? Depends on when you asked him.

When State Senator Guy Velella of the Bronx questioned Bloomberg last month at an Albany budget hearing about the project–which has been stalled for years by successful community opposition to two sites in residential neighborhoods in the senator’s district–Bloomberg said, “We are going to try to convince the federal government that in fact the water quality is good enough so that we do not have to build a water filtration plant, the siting of which is a very controversial thing, as well as the expense being something that we really cannot afford at the moment.” Besides, he said, the city only gets 10 percent of its water supply from the Croton.

Velella and other plant opponents cheered at the comments. The water from northern Westchester is clean enough to avoid filtration, they say, and can be kept clean by limiting development near the reservoirs.
Then, a couple of weeks ago, officials from the city Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) seemed to backpedal from Bloomberg’s remarks at a community meeting in the Bronx by reverting to their years-old argument that they would seek to avoid filtration if new science and technology warrants it.

And Bloomberg’s spokesperson backed them up: “The mayor will follow the rulings of the court,” said Jordan Barowitz. That is, the city will design and build a plant for the Croton system according to a strict schedule, beginning with the announcement of a preferred site next April, as is required under a revised agreement the city signed late last year.

Karen Argenti, a veteran in the decade-old Bronx battle, portrayed the change in positions as a struggle between a businessman mayor and the government agency that created the filtration plant plan. “The DEP took it upon themselves to explain [Bloomberg’s] statement because they didn’t like it,” she said. “It will be interesting to see how the mayor is going to react to the established bureaucracy.”

While DEP would not comment on the disparity within the administration, activists still hope Bloomberg will go the way of Boston, where the city successfully sued the federal government last summer to avoid building a filtration plant.

But the DEP argues that the Massachusetts case doesn’t apply to New York because the Empire State failed to apply for a filtration avoidance waiver more than a decade ago, a step some filtration foes say the feds never really required.

The Giuliani administration did take one site off the drawing board last fall, and two new, more remote industrial locations–one on the east bank of the Harlem River in the northwest Bronx, the other in Westchester–have yet to engender vigorous opposition. The city will start holding hearings on the two sites on March 5.