Ignoring county sewer problem?

By ROBERT I. RHODES, PH.D.

( Community Views in The Journal News Original publication: December 9, 2005)

There is no effective political leadership in Rockland. Anyone who doubts this assertion should take a look at County Sewer District No. 1, which is responsible for most of the sewers in Rockland.

Expansion of a sewer system is a difficult investment. That is to say, when a sewer line becomes overloaded, one can't simply add a little capacity. The entire line has to be dug up and replaced at a cost of millions of dollars. The replacement of part of a system often simply moves the problem further downstream.

Finally, when a sewer treatment plant becomes overloaded, its expansion costs at least tens of millions of dollars. Consequently, it is not surprising that sewer projects take years, from the time they are conceived until the time they are completed.

Given these circumstances, one would expect that our Sewer Commission would be involved in an ongoing analysis of the existing system and have well thought out plans for its expansion. Nothing could be further from the truth.

A list of what our Sewer Commission has not done includes the following

Continuing demographic studies by professional demographers in order to predict rates and locations of population growth. (No governmental body in Rockland, United Water, Orange and Rockland Utilities or any county bureaucracy has ever conducted a competent study of population growth.)

Maintenance of modern instrumentation reporting levels of sewage flows. (Our remote monitoring system ceased working at the end of 1999, and our Sewer Commission is only now studying its replacement.)

Long-term plans for the financing and construction of new lines and treatment plants in order to handle population growth outside of western Ramapo.

Given these failures, it is not surprising that Dianne Phillips, who heads our sewer authority, has refused to answer questions in public regarding the serious threat that rapid population growth poses for our sewer system. Furthermore, her private discussion with representatives of the unfortunate victims of sewer overflows in Airmont suggests she has carefully avoided any serious examination of our system's future needs.

Who is at fault? Leadership starts at the top. First, we have the refusal of Ramapo Supervisor Christopher St. Lawrence to accept the serious warnings expressed by the sewer district's own engineers. And then we have the refusal of other town supervisors (who are also on the Sewer Commission) to ask embarrassing questions.

Our county legislators and our county executive are also at fault. Why ask embarrassing questions when you can keep winning elections? It is much easier to divide up the county into little fiefdoms for the benefit of the political bosses. Responsible planning is not possible in this kind of political system, and sooner or later this irresponsibility is going to have a devastating impact on Rockland.