By Walter Mugdan
Last week we lost a prince of a man. Constantine Sidamon-Eristoff was our Regional Administrator (RA) from 1989-93. He died on December 26, at the age of 81.
Few other public figures were so universally admired and respected. Ask anyone who knew him and it’s likely the first thing said about Connie is that he was a true gentleman. You’ll also hear about his devotion to conservation, his environmental leadership, his unimpeachable integrity, and his long career of public service in government and with a variety of NGOs. But mostly you’ll hear about his decency and civility.
Connie’s government service started in the 1960s when he was NYC Transportation Commissioner. A strong proponent of mass transit, he went on to serve for 15 years as a member of the MTA Board of Directors.
In 1989, newly elected President George H.W. Bush selected William Reilly to be EPA’s Administrator. Reilly knew exactly the right person to be RA for Region 2 – Connie Eristoff. But the then senior senator from NY had a different candidate in mind, a man of no apparent qualifications for the position. Reilly took his case directly to the President, and won.
With his avuncular style and obvious dedication to EPA’s mission, Connie brought out the best in everyone around him. He wasn’t a micro-manager, but he was deeply and crucially involved in two decisions of extraordinary and lasting importance.
Connie authorized the reassessment of PCB contamination in the Hudson River. EPA had decided half a decade earlier that the river should not be dredged. The reassessment culminated in the Region’s 2002 decision calling for dredging of 2.6 million cubic yards of contaminated sediment. That work, now underway, will yield unparalleled benefits.
And it was Connie who championed the landmark Filtration Avoidance Determination (FAD) for the upstate watersheds from which NYC draws 90% of its drinking water. Surface water supplies must be filtered unless a FAD is issued. Much of EPA’s professional staff – especially in Headquarters – opposed such a determination for the NYC system, the nation’s largest. Connie recognized the enormous opportunities for conservation that a FAD for the City would create. To avoid having to spend $8 -$10 billion on a filtration plant, NYC would be required to invest $1 – $2 billion on programs to ensure the continued high quality of its drinking water. Chief among these was a program to dramatically increase the amount of undeveloped watershed land in public ownership. Connie understood the incredible conservation and recreational benefits of those lands, and knew this was a once-in-a-lifetime chance.
Connie personally persuaded Administrator Reilly to authorize the FAD. Reilly said recently: “I thought I was buying two or three years for New York City. He brokered the deal, and to my astonishment it worked. It works today.”
Indeed it does. Two decades later we take the FAD and its marvelous results for granted. NYC has spent nearly $400 million to protect 120,000 acres of undeveloped and agricultural land, increasing by more than 60% the amount of protected land in the watershed. Hundreds of millions more have been spent on numerous other water quality protection programs. The FAD is rightly seen as a model of innovation. But none of that would have happened without Connie.
This unpretentious man left an amazing legacy of accomplishments (for more, see: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/30/nyregion/constantine-sidamon-eristoff-environmental-advocate-dies-at-81.html).
I trust you will agree that I am right in calling him a prince of a man. And, oh yes, he was in fact also a real Prince … Prince Constantine Sidamon-Eristoff of the Kingdom (now Republic) of Georgia. No kidding.