A Geyser in the Woods

Oct. 1, Cherry Lane, Airmont   You can see it from the edge of the woods just as you enter the brush. It looks like a bunker or maybe a subterranean entrance with a concrete base, the lower part of which rises two feet off the floor of the woods. The iron lid sitting on top is a rusted 100-pound manhole cover, 26 inches across with raised lettering that spells RCSD No1 (Rockland County Sewer District #1). You don’t have to step into the woods very far to know what happened here recently.

The air in the woods still reeks from a sewage spill four weeks ago. The ground around the cement structure is blackened mud with some lumps of white remaining from the lime spread over the area by workers. This darkened area, about 30 feet across is about as wide as the space that filled with the pooling spill after the lid was lifted off its base.

The reason the spill didn’t cover the whole section of woods becomes apparent as you look toward the Cherry Brook, about 15 or 20 feet away. The floor of the woods slopes down sharply, directly to the edge of the stream.

Today, the moving water is so clear you can see the moss-covered stones in the stream bed. During the spill, neighbors say the water ran cloudy.

We spoke to two people from the neighborhood who went down to the site when the sewer line was emptying into the stream. Both described a continuous column erupting two to three feet above the concrete base. The inlet sewer line to this manhole is a 12-in. diameter pipe that is run down a steep grade, dropping 6.85 feet for every hundred feet of pipe. The flow down that accelerated slope could produce the kind of force that could lift the lid off its base at this location if a blockage were present.

The flow ran into the Cherry Brook for one to two weeks in the middle of August. Estimates of the volume of the spill that we have gotten from an engineer range from a low of 2.5 million gallons (for the 60 hours over the weekend) to 14 million gallons over a two week period. It depends on how long the flow ran, so we will begin with a reconstructed time line and then look at the method for calculating the total.

In mid-August on Cherry Lane, there were signs that something was wrong. Three of the neighbors told us that there was a foul smell was in the neighborhood a week or two before the first notification was given to the authorities. That notification was made late afternoon, Friday, August 25.

John Andreadis lives on a piece of property adjacent to the woods where the manhole is situated. He heard the sound of something like a waterfall about two weeks before that Friday. Both Mr. Andreadis and his wife also noticed that the stream was running cloudy for several weeks before August 25.

On Friday afternoon, August 25, John Andreadis was leaving on vacation, and at this point he had discovered the spouting manhole in the woods. He spoke to his neighbor, Walter Behr, about the problem. Mr. Behr didn’t think they could wait until Monday to get some help, so he told John he would make the calls.

First, he called Public Works and got a recorded message that included advice to call the Police if there was an emergency. Walter left a message, and then called the Ramapo Police. He described the problem, but the police told him they couldn’t do anything until Monday.

On four or five occasions over that weekend, Walter went to check on the line, and each time he saw a column of water rising several feet above the cement base.

Saturday morning, August 26, Behr was driving to Monsey and at the corner of Christmas Hill Road and S. Monsey Road he saw a Village of Airmont pickup parked at the corner. He stopped and told the driver about the spill. The driver asked if he could show him where it was, and Walter obliged, taking him back to the site on Cherry Lane.

Saturday afternoon, Saturday night–-no one is sent out to stop the flow.

Sunday afternoon, Sunday night–-same situation as the sewer line continues to spill directly into Cherry Brook.

Monday morning, workers arrive from the Sewer District and are able to stop the flow.

From Friday afternoon to Monday morning, a constant flow of untreated sewage rushed into the Cherry Brook to flow downstream into Lake Oratam and then on to the Saddle River in New Jersey. Those 60+ hours were likely only part of the total, judging from the observations of residents about the sounds, smell, and condition of the brook for the previous two weeks.

Three agencies were notified, but not one made the necessary call to RCSD #1. Mr. Behr can be excused for not knowing that the Sewer District #1 was the correct first call. But for the Ramapo Police, the Airmont municipal worker, and the DPW to have taken no action brings up a serious question about liability. The system broke down. The situation was a health emergency, and three separate agencies failed to act.

The Sewer District could not have been expected to respond without some kind of notification, but then, what if the homeowner near the woods had gone on vacation not knowing what was causing that awful smell near his home? Could the pollution of these waterways gone on for a month—a month-and-a-half, when you add the likely two previous weeks? Further, how many of these sewer manholes are in other woods? Are there others that are more remote? And how many are near waterways?

Right now, we don't know if the Sewer District had a part in the delay, but the fact that they had an idea of the volume of this discharge, that it emptied directly into two small lakes a few hundred yards downstream, and they didn't speak to the residents was irresponsible. There are seven families living around these lakes. They should have been notified and their children warned. And given the enormity of the spill, how is it possible that no one came to test the waters in the lakes?

The Amount of the Spill
The 12-inch pipe that comes into this manhole (we believe it’s #12010) comes down an incline with a 6.85 foot vertical drop per 100 feet of pipe length. This is very steep. We have been told that the minimum slope for a 12" diameter line to produce a 2 feet per second minimum velocity is 0.22 feet per 100 feet of pipe run. Let’s assume the much slower 2 feet per second velocity in the pipe.

Working from this very conservative number for velocity, assume that the pipe is full and you have a volume of 11.75 gallons exiting the pipe every second. For those who might argue the pipe is probably not entirely full, consider the reduction in grade from 6.85 to 0.22 to compensate for any difference here. The geyser rose ten feet to reach the surface from the underground juncture, so that back pressure probably helped keep the line full as it exited.

Now multiply 11.75 times 60 (seconds) and the volume is 705 gallons per minute, 42,390 gallons per hour, and 1,015,200 gallons in a day.

From Friday 6pm to Monday morning is 60+ hours, so over the weekend that residents tried to notify authorities, 2,543,400 gallons of untreated sewage poured into the Cherry Brook and flowed downstream to Upper and Lower Lake Oratam and finally out to the Saddle River.

If the spill had been running for two weeks as might be indicated by the neighbors reports of the smell, cloudy water, and rushing waterfall sound, the total becomes a staggering 14,212,800 gallons. Fourteen million gallons into two small lakes used for recreation.

We have not received the spill report from RCSD #1 yet (the FOIA request was submitted by Peter Strasser). But we have been told by a reliable source that the total of the spill in the report reads "undetermined." Now the authorities were told that the spill began Friday late afternoon, or possibly even earlier, but the Sewer District was unable to come up with an estimate of the total. We will post the document when we receive a copy from Peter.

The aerial map below shows the location of the spill on Cherry Lane. The green arrow is positioned just about on the road, and it also indicates the flow of the Cherry Brook. The Brook empties a few hundred yards down the road into Lake Oratam, upper and lower.

The residents who use this lake were not notified by any agency about the spill nor given any precautions that might be necessary in the aftermath. There’s a dock on the lake, and kids and adults in the neighborhood use the lake for kayaking, fishing, and just the normal playing that kids do around any water source. The spill occurred in the middle and latter part of the month of August when the kids were out of school and more likely to spend time down at the water.

There is an abundance of wildlife that live in, near, or that visit the two small lakes. Herons, egrets, ducks, wild turkey, wood turtles, sliders, and a variety of fish. And then there’s the reality that many residents on the Oratam Road side of the lake depend on private wells. What feeds these wells? And are people eating the fish taken from the lake? To date (Oct. 1-–more than a month after the reported event), we have not heard of any notification given to any of the residents about the spill or possible problems arising from the sixty-hour (or 336-hour) geyser in the woods.

Preserve Ramapo will continue to update this story as we receive information and documents from the Sewer District, the Rockland Board of Health, or the Department of Environmental Conservation.

Michael Castelluccio

Photos below show route of spill on its way to the Saddle River in New Jersey (click on thumbnail for full-size image)


Cherry Brook where it enters Lake Oratam

Upper Lake Oratam

Lower Lake Oratam

Waters exit the Lake in this waterfall

Lake water crosses under Hillside Avenue and flows to the Saddle River on the New Jersey side