The Siphon, the Supervisor, and the Storm

The money had been spent—a lot of it, hundreds of thousands. The fix was in place—a new reverse siphon along the railroad tracks that would end the sewer spills along South Monsey Road in Airmont. Then it began to rain.

It rained heavily all night (Thursday, March 1) and into the next morning. The kind of rainfall that in the past would force a sewage spill at the 4 South Monsey Road location—ten of them in the last two years. The underground rivers were building, flowing out of Monsey and Airmont towards the undersized sewer line.

At about quarter to ten that morning, a gray SUV backed into the railroad easement right next to manhole number 10019, the one that always blows during heavy rain events. Inside the car was Dianne Philipps, Director of Rockland County Sewer District #1. She had a clear view of the manhole on the street.

A few minutes before her arrival, a fellow wearing a red poncho and yellow boots came out of his house on the corner of Monsey Heights and South Monsey Road. He walked under the trees, and from his yard, he looked down at the road. He too was watching 10019. In fact, over the last 3+ years, Dave had documented all the major spills in front of his house—some of them pretty spectacular, all of them poisonous.

Dave crossed back over the yard to come down to street level, and shortly before 10, Dianne pulled out, heading down S. Monsey Road toward Saddle River.

At 10:01, a crown of sewage water erupted around the edges of the manhole cover, like a circular fountain lifting several inches off the ground. From under his umbrella, Dave opened his 35mm camera and began taking photos. He watched as the sewage flowed down the inclined road and collected on the other side of the street in the railway easement where minutes before the SUV sat parked. The pooling sewage then flowed across the street, over to the side where Dave stood. The smell was unmistakable—despite the siphon it was overflowing again.

It lasted a few minutes, and as it subsided, Dave closed up his camera.

Ironically, about 10 minutes after the spill, Dianne Philipps came back up the road, drove over the residue of the spill, and then turned right on to Monsey Heights Road.

Deny, deny, deny

The sun was out by early afternoon, and when Dave came back at 2:45 from dropping off the film to be developed, he saw a black SUV parked near his house. It was Supervisor St. Lawrence and several Ramapo road crew workers along the edge of the road trying to improve the drainage off the road to the ditches east and west of the manhole that had erupted earlier that morning.

Dave parked in his driveway and came back to discuss with St. Lawrence what he had seen. Besides being Supervisor, St. Lawrence is a commissioner on the Rockland County Sewer Commission.

He told St. Lawrence that he had seen an overflow at the manhole at 10:01 that morning.

He was surprised at the Supervisor’s response.

You didn’t see a spill, Dave was told. You’re wrong. Dianne Philipps was at the site and she saw only gas bubbles coming up through surface water.

Dave explained that he had pictures of an overflow that occurred after she had left the area.

St. Lawrence told Dave he didn’t have pictures of an overflow. He insisted Dave was wrong.

Frustrated, Dave told the supervisor if we experienced a four-inch rainfall in the future we would get a more severe overflow situation and he would regret his words.

In Dave’s own words, "He just wouldn’t hear it and continued to want to debate the situation," so I just walked away. I would be getting the photos back next Tuesday.

   Tuesday afternoon, after Dave picked up his prints, he came over to the house and laid out ten color photos of manhole 10019 taken at just before, and then at exactly 10:01. It was a spill.

Manhole 10019--South Monsey Road--March 1, 2007--10:01 am

 In fact, later that afternoon, when Airmont Trustee Joe Meyers sent the images to Dianne Philipps her response was "this appears indeed to have been a spill." She said she would call Dave to see if the spill lasted for a duration of at least a minute or so and if the discharge had flowed out and away from the manhole before she would file a spill report.

Philipps had previously expressed doubts about whether the photos were actually taken at the time Dave said he took them, as though Dave would use images from another incident. Actually, Dave had anticipated this kind of suspicion and he purposely framed his photos to include a chain-link gate that was new since the work on the siphon. When Meyers pointed out the gate in the background, Philipps’ response was simply, "Oh."

When you look back at the past behavior of Supervisor St. Lawrence about problems concerning the sewer system, you can see a long-standing pattern of denial. Back on January 26, 2006 at a Sewer Commission meeting, Dave had presented a series of boards mounted with photos of numerous sewer spills and Preserve Ramapo offered a stack of 100 spill reports FOILed from the Sewer District’s own records that documented virtually a million gallons of raw sewage spills in Ramapo and other parts of the County. St. Lawrence’s formally announced position that night was, "There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the County sanitary sewer system."

But "see no evil, hear no evil" is totally unacceptable for those who have a foul-smelling, disease-bearing pool of overflow sewage at the end of their driveway for the kids to try to walk around on their way to the bus in the morning, or in locker rooms of the Swim and Tennis Club on Saddle River Road, or at the showroom of the Spring Valley car dealership on Route 59, or alongside the Lake Deforest Reservoir.

That Same Day Downstream on Saddle River Road

On Thursday evening (March 1) I received an email from a resident on Hillside Avenue who reported: "Just walked my dog down to the Saddle River Swim & Tennis Club and saw a debris trail of tissue paper and tampons from the manhole cover next to the swim club, (Service rd. to water pump station) down to the Saddle River. I just called Mike Kivleham at the Sewer District #1 and filed the spill. He said they are really swamped over there but they would send someone over. I told him it’s not currently active but they definitely should put some lime on it." [Photos below show lime treatment of area after clean-up as well as the waterway threatened by this spill.]

The cleanup and lime application at manhole and down the road

The waterway that catches spills and carries them into New Jersey

This manhole typically overflows in heavy rainfalls, and it is especially problematic because the spills can flow directly down into a waterway (Saddle River) heading into New Jersey. You might recall that Upper Saddle River has filed a lawsuit against the Sewer District for violations of the Federal Clean Waters Act.

We also received information about several other events, and we will soon be filing Freedom of Information Act (FOIL) requests for the official spill reports on all of these. We hope the officials will take their hands away from their eyes and ears long enough to fill out the required paperwork

Michael Castelluccio