Head of BIA meeting with opponents of Sullivan casino
MONTICELLO – Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and other casino opponents spoke against Catskill casinos at a closed-door meeting this morning before the head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Larry EchoHawk, the assistant secretary for Indian Affairs, heard comments from 14 people representing environmental groups and anti-gaming organizations.
Kennedy, who was representing the Riverkeeper and The Waterkeeper Alliance, made a conference call expressing concerns about the impact on the reservoirs, which provide drinking water to millions of residents in New York City.
“He was concerned that casino development would trigger sprawl and impact the water shed,” said Mark Izeman, a senior staff attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
EchoHawk arrived in the lobby shortly after 10:30 a.m. and went directly into the meeting room, while casino opponents gathered outside the Government Center.
The meeting was closed to the public and EchoHawk plans this afternoon to hear from three Indian tribes and casino supporters in another closed-door meeting.
Sen. John Bonacic, R-C-Mount Hope, and Assemblywoman Aileen Gunther, D-C-Forestburgh, are scheduled to speak in favor.
EchoHawk was invited by Congressman Maurice Hinchey, D-Hurley, who will attend all the meetings. Sen. Chuck Schumer is also expected to attend the meeting with casino supporters and will appear with EchoHawk and Hinchey at a news conference this afternoon. He took notes and made few comments, attendees said.
“The primary message is that there are two competing economic visions for Sullivan County,” Izeman said.
“One is the old giant casino model that will bring traffic spikes, degrade air quality and unplanned sprawl. The other vision is a sustainable economic development that will bring green jobs, clean tech, new universities and allow the Catskills to preserve its unique character.”
During the morning meeting, one casino opponent, Art Siegel, attempted to enter and was rebuffed by an aide to Hinchey. Siegel says he is recording a documentary on the gaming issue and was appalled at being shut out.
“I think it stinks,” Siegel said. “What do our elected officials have to hide from the public with respect to issues that are a concern to the general public and which are not a matter of National Security?”
Not all those in the anti-casino meeting were against a casino. Thompson Supervisor Tony Cellini, as the supervisor in the town where the casinos are proposed, was also invited to sit in on the first meeting. Cellini has been one of the biggest supporters over the years.
“I think they have had the opportunity to plead their case,” Cellini said. “The environmental studies have been completed.”
Both sides say EchoHawk’s visit is significant and believe that the Obama Administration will review the policies of the Bush Administration that made it almost impossible to open an off-reservation casino. EchoHawk’s staff would do most of the review in a casino proposal.
Asked whether he thought this would speed up the process, Cellini said, “Hopefully. It can’t slow it down more than it already has.”