Sunday's nor'easter underscores sewer system limits

By ROBERT I. RHODES  Community View in The Journal News  (Original Publication: April 18, 2007)

Sewer Commissioner and Ramapo Town Supervisor Christopher St. Lawrence have a problem. Every time we've had a heavy rain, thousands or perhaps even millions of gallons of raw sewage flow out of his sewer system and into a branch of the Saddle River. Something has to be done.

But St. Lawrence and Dianne Philipps, executive director of Sewer District #1, still refuse to admit that they have a systemic problem - too many people and a sewer system designed for single-family homes. Their first "solution" was to construct a $300,000 reverse siphon located by "Old Faithful," the sewer manhole that always erupts whenever we have a heavy rain. When that didn't stop sewage from flowing into the Upper Saddle River, they bolted the manhole cover down. Unfortunately, raw sewage, like water, will find a way. By Sunday afternoon, a massive sewer flow began to emerge from the manhole by the Saddle River Swim and Tennis Club. It became a stream that, once again, flowed into the east branch of the Saddle River. Shortly thereafter it was joined by another stream of raw sewage flowing from the manhole on Hillside Avenue near the bridge.

A year ago in January, St. Lawrence stood before a TV camera, his favorite location, and declared that nothing is wrong with our sewers. More recently he declared that our sewers are "adequate." The Borough of Upper Saddle River sees it differently. It has continued to document the contamination of Bergen County's water supply by our sewer system, and its lawsuit under the federal Clean Water Act is moving ahead.

In the meantime, Sewer District #1 will continue to seal manholes covers. But sewage will find a way. Every time a manhole is sealed the water pressure in the system increases and back pressure against the system's pumps increases their load.

What will give out first; will it be a seam between two sections of sewer pipe, the motor in a large pumping station or the pocketbooks of already overtaxed Ramapo residents?

The writer, a Suffern resident, is chairman of Preserve Ramapo.