Amid fears that terrorists could be plotting to disrupt water supplies around the nation, Mayor Bloomberg will assign the task of guarding New York’s reservoirs to Edward Welch, a retired Police Department commander who will train the city’s water cops to defend against bioterrorism, people familiar with the decision have told The Observer .
In appointing Mr. Welch as chief of the city Department of Environmental Protection’s police force, however, City Hall is girding for a political assault from Robert F. Kennedy Jr., an environmentalist and longtime critic of the D.E.P. Mr. Kennedy led a behind-the-scenes campaign on behalf of another candidate-Ronald Gatto, a whistle-blowing captain of the agency’s police force who has been patrolling the watershed for two decades.
“Gatto has spent 20 years trying to reform this agency,” Mr. Kennedy, the chief prosecuting attorney at Riverkeeper Inc., an evironmental watchdog group, told The Observer . “The environmental community has made it very clear to the administration that appointing Gatto was the single most important thing they could do to show they were trying to do the right thing at D.E.P.”
Mr. Kennedy declined to comment on Mr. Welch, but warned that the failure to appoint Mr. Gatto would set back relations between City Hall’s new environmental commissioner, Christopher Ward, and the city’s environmentalists.
“It’s a disappointment for the entire environmental community,” Mr. Kennedy said. “I like Chris Ward. But we need Wyatt Earp to go in there and clean up the D.E.P., and I think we’re getting W.C. Fields.”
In response, William Cunningham, Mr. Bloomberg’s director of communications, suggested that Mr. Kennedy was being short-sighted by threatening to withdraw the good will of the environmental community over a single appointment.
“If some people think they can punish an entire agency by withholding their support because they didn’t get the person they wanted in a particular position, they are sadly mistaken,” Mr. Cunningham said. “If that’s a pressure tactic, it won’t work. The commissioner will make his own decision.”
The dispute over the appointment comes at a critical moment for the security of the upstate watershed. The Sept. 11 attacks have turned the job of D.E.P. police chief-whose tasks used to focus primarily on preventing low-level illegal dumping, such as manure runoff from farms and the unlawful discarding of restaurant waste-into a high-visibility position that will require constant interaction with the F.B.I. and other arms of the homeland-security network.
Mr. Welch will have unprecedented responsibilities in his new job. As The Observer reported in June, a top-secret Army Corps of Engineers assessment of the city water supply recommended that officials implement a range of new security initiatives, including infrared night-vision cameras around reservoirs, to guard the water supply from bioterrorism. The report, which has not been made public, concluded that the water system was vulnerable to explosives at its so-called intake points – vast underground valve chambers in the Bronx and Brooklyn that deliver billions of gallons of water into the city each day.
By temporarily stanching the flow of water through one of these chambers, an explosive could cause untold logistical problems for thousands, if not millions, of businesses and residents. In response to the report, city officials have since fortified the intake points with new steel doors, cameras and increased security checks.
More recently, city officials were given a jolt by a report in this week’s Time magazine, which said that Al Qaeda operatives had acquired manuals detailing the inner workingsofwater-treatment plants and utilities, suggesting that terrorists have considered some sort of attack on a water system somewhere in the United States.
Such fears have led Bloomberg administration officials to make bioterrorism training a crucial component of the police chief’s new job, agency sources said. Mr. Welch, who retired from the NYPD in 2000 after a 20-year career, was chosen for the job because of his hands-on experience managing cops and teaching them to deal with urban catastrophes, such as the setting off of explosives and the release of deadly chemicals in crowded places. Mr. Welch currently teaches at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan.
In the new job, Mr. Welch will be responsible for training D.E.P. cops to identify traces of explosives, hazardous and deadly chemicals, and suspicious devices that might be used to damage critical watershed infrastructure, among other techniques.
Mr. Welch’s appointment comes after a weeks-long battle between Mr. Kennedy and City Hall.
In the early days of the administration, Bloomberg aides worked hard to develop good relations with the city’s environmental community, which had been regrouping after an eight-year war with Mr. Bloomberg’s predecessor, Rudolph Giuliani. Bloomberg aides quietly vetted their choice of D.E.P. commissioner, Mr. Ward, with the environmental community before announcing his appointment. Mr. Ward made a series of quick moves that endeared City Hall to the environmental community. He killed a plan to supplement drought-ravaged reservoirs with Hudson River water, winning applause from environmentalists.
Mr. Kennedy quickly let it be known, however, that the biggest item on his agenda was the appointment of Mr. Gatto as D.E.P. police chief. Mr. Gatto, he said, had spent decades battling for tougher enforcement of watershed restrictions, and often took on his own bosses in the process. To hear Mr. Kennedy tell it, only Mr. Gatto, with his knowledge of miles of ancient aqueducts and water tunnels, and his connections to scores of local police chiefs throughout the watershed region, could adequately police the sprawling water system.
“The largest threat to the water supply today is not bioterrorism-it’s pollution from careless development,” Mr. Kennedy said. “You need someone who is committed to standing up to the powerful political forces who are profiteering from polluting the city’s water supply.”
Mr. Ward disputed Mr. Kennedy’s assertions. “The issues that currently face D.E.P., both in terms of bioterrorism and police management, exceed Gatto’s current abilities,” Mr. Ward said. “We needed someone with a larger breadth of management experience and police training.”
But Mr. Kennedy believed that Mr. Gatto was the best candidate for the job. He began mobilizing environmentalists to press for Mr. Gatto, and other environmentalists began writing letters on behalf of his candidacy.
According to D.E.P. sources, Mr. Kennedy repeatedly called Mr. Ward to press for the Gatto appointment, suggesting that a failure to give Mr. Gatto the job would ruin City Hall’s relationship with the entire environmental community.
“Kennedy said, ‘Without this action, the environmental community won’t be able to support you,’” a D.E.P. source said.
Mr. Kennedy denied delivering such an ultimatum. “I clearly told Chris Ward that his failure to appoint Gatto was a disappointment, but not one that would interfere with future support from the environmental community,” Mr. Kennedy said. “I said that this was a missed opportunity, but that if he did good things in the future, we’d applaud him for it.”
At another point, Mr. Kennedy met with Mr. Ward to show him a series of photos allegedly showing that the recent acting head of the D.E.P. police had been getting drunk on the job. The photos showed the acting chief sitting at a bar in an upstate tavern on a weekday afternoon. Mr. Kennedy told Mr. Ward the photos were yet another sign that the department needed cleaning up-in other words, that it needed Mr. Gatto.
Soon after-around the time it became clear that Mr. Gatto wasn’t getting the job-a story about the photos appeared in the New York Post , under the headline “Cop’s Liquid Lunches.” The story asserted that before going public, Mr. Kennedy had shown the photostoseveral Bloomberg aides, including Mr. Cunningham, but Mr. Cunningham disputed that.
“Mr. Kennedy never showed me the photos that are referred to,” Mr. Cunningham said. “I called Bobby, and he told me he must have been mistaken.”
Mr. Kennedy allowed that he had not shown the photos to Mr. Cunningham, but said he had shown them to other top Bloomberg aides.
Either way, City Hall took the story as a sign that Mr. Kennedy was looking to publicly highlight, in a negative way, Mr. Bloomberg’s failure to appoint Mr. Gatto-a reading that Mr. Kennedy didn’t dispute.
At another point, Mr. Kennedy also began faxing the upstate media, indicating that he was prepared to speak out “about the latest scandal to shake the New York City Department of Environmental Protection reservoir police and its new commissioner, Christopher Ward.” The fax detailed the “Cop’s Liquid Lunches” story and other revelations that portrayed a D.E.P. police force demoralized and in need of reform.
Few dispute that one of the new D.E.P. police chief’s main tasks will be to reform the force. “The top cop is the person who gives a sense of direction and purpose to rank-and-file water cops,” said Richard Schrader, a Democratic consultant who helped negotiate the 1996 watershed agreement between the city and state. “He can get them to enforce the law aggressively, which they haven’t done in quite a while.”
In the end, Mr. Bloomberg decided to go with Mr. Ward’s choice for that difficult task, in part because he didn’t want it to appear as if Mr. Kennedy had chosen his D.E.P. police chief.
“In my discussions with the Mayor, it was clear we should appoint the best-qualified police chief, regardless of any external political agenda,” Mr. Ward told The Observer . “We won’t be pressured by anybody when it comes to appointments.
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