Airmont sewage spill debated

By James Walsh   The Journal News

(Original Publication: October 29, 2006)

AIRMONT - The amount of sewage that overflowed from a county pipe into Cherry Brook in August is contested by residents, who say Rockland misrepresented the seriousness of the spill.

A dozen residents brought their case to the county sewer commission last week, estimating that 2.5 million gallons had spilled.

The Rockland sewer district's estimate is 4,000 gallons.

Residents were also concerned about a communications mixup that kept the spill flowing between Aug. 25 and 28.

The spill came from a manhole about 10 feet from the west side of Cherry Brook. A repair crew determined that a vandal had tossed a cement block into the manhole.

Michael Castelluccio of Chestnut Ridge told the sewer commission that the 2.5 million-gallon estimate was made by Ronald Glisci of Airmont, an engineer who also addressed the commissioners.

The calculation assumed that the pipe was full during the spill.

"It's difficult to imagine anything other than that," Castelluccio told the commission, "when you remember the neighbor's description of a geyser erupting from the top of the manhole."

Contacted after the meeting, Walter Behr, who lives across Cherry Lane from the spill, said he couldn't gauge its quantity.

"I'd say it was a lot, but how much, I don't know," said Behr, who reported the spill to Ramapo police on the evening of Aug. 25. He said the sewage rose 2 to 4 feet into the air.

"It was fairly steady throughout the weekend," Behr said.

The sewer district determined that a report of Behr's telephone call was faxed to the Ramapo Department of Public Works, which was closed at the time.

It wasn't until Sunday morning that the fax was seen and the sewer district notified.

Sewer workers detected nothing unusual at a nearby pump station except an odor. The problem wasn't addressed until Monday, when a district engineer called Ramapo Public Works and determined the location of the spill.

"We're manned 24 hours a day, seven days a week," Dianne Philipps, executive director of the sewer district, said of the treatment plant and offices.

If a public works supervisor had been telephoned or paged, she said, the district could have been notified immediately.

As for the extent of the spill, Philipps said the residents' calculations were wrong.

Their figures were based on a 2-foot-wide pipe, when it was really 12 inches (this is wrong--see statement to the right). Also, the pipe was only one-quarter full, she said.

"If there was a total blockage," Philipps said, "we would have had no flow at the Cherry Lane pump station. But the pumps were operating, flow was coming into the station, and there was no noticeable decrease."

Some residents at the meeting have opposed new multifamily housing in the town, citing inadequate sewers as one reason.

And during the meeting, several residents, including Castelluccio and Robert Rhodes, both of Preserve Ramapo, suggested that Ramapo Supervisor Christopher St. Lawrence pressured the sewer district to minimize the significance of overflows.

"Do I control everything?" St. Lawrence asked when contacted after the meeting. "It's absurd."

Philipps said she reported not only to the commission, which includes St. Lawrence, but also to the County Executive's Office and the county Legislature.

"I'm not risking my professional engineering license by not telling the truth," Philipps said.


Note: Rockland County Sewer District did not ask the people in the neighborhood about the spill even after we informed the engineer who wrote the report that according to eye witnesses, the spill was already flowing into the creek on Friday afternoon and ran until Monday afternoon. The Sewer district based its estimate (4,000 gallons spilled) on their limited observations that Monday morning.

Also left out of the newspaper account is where the spill ended up. It flowed into a brook that feeds two recreational lakes a few hundred yards downstream. See comments to the right.

Remarks delivered to County Sewer Commission Thursday Oct 26

October 26, 2006

Good afternoon. My name is Michael Castelluccio, I am a resident of Chestnut Ridge, and I am the editor of the Preserve Ramapo website. The last time we came to this commission, that was January 26 of this year, the problem was the public denial of a hundred sewage spills that threatened public safety.

Today, I would like to explain the failures surrounding a 2.5 million gallon sewage spill that occurred in Airmont eight weeks ago. I donít know if you have discussed the event, but the Journal News, the Bergen Record, the Council members of Upper Saddle River, and a law firm are all familiar with it. This is the Bergen Record from a week ago Tuesday. The headline is Sewage Border WaróN.Y. spills prompt Upper Saddle River to warn of suit. I imagine, by now, you have received that letter of intent.

Like most of the residents in the area, I didnít find out about the spill until several weeks after it happened. I got an e-mail, and after four or five days of questioning neighbors and photographing the sites I put together the following narrative of the events.

On Friday August 25th about 6 oíclock, late in the afternoon, a resident living on Cherry Lane in Airmont called the Ramapo DPW to report a geyser erupting from a manhole in the woods alongside the property at 64 Cherry Lane. He left a message and followed the instructions to call the Ramapo Police in the event this was an emergency. He called, and when he spoke to a person at the police department he was informed that they might not be able to get there until Monday.

On Saturday morning, Aug. 26th, this same resident was driving and saw a Village of Airmont municipal pickup parked on the side of the road, so he stopped to tell the worker about the spill. He then took the man back to the woods to show him what was going on.

Saturday afternoon, no one had yet arrived to stop the spill.

Saturday, all day, Sunday, through Sunday nightóno one arrives. During that time, the resident told me he went down to the woods four or five times, and each time there was a steady flow issuing from the manhole.

Finally, Monday morning Aug. 28, a crew arrives from RCSD #1 and by early afternoon (1:05 pm) they stopped the overflow.

As I worked on the story for the website, I needed to establish a firm time-line for this spill, I spoke to three neighbors who live in closest proximity to the manhole. One resident has his backyard adjacent to the woods. For my original time-line, I allowed for a 6 am arrival of the sewers workers on Monday morning and stopped my clock at that point since I had not yet been given the official spill report that established the real end point at 1:05 Monday afternoon. So what I had was Friday 6 pm to Monday morning 6 amĖan event lasting 60 hours, and it was described by an eyewitness as continuous every time he checked on it.

Itís important to remember this time-line is a minimum. Anecdotal information from the neighbors provides evidence that this spill could have been going on for two weeks. I say this because three neighbors told me there was a foul smell in the neighborhood for a full week or two before that Friday afternoon. It was so bad one mother told me she assumed her child had gotten sick from it after an afternoon of playing outside. Also, the brook runs across the backyard of one resident who told me the water had looked cloudy for a week or two, but he didnít realize the cause until later. He also told me that there had been a sound of rushing water, something like a waterfall, for a week or two, but he thought it might be the small waterfall that is a couple hundred yards upstream from his property. It turned out to be the sound coming from the erupting manhole.

The time-line I settled on was the more conservative 60 hours over the weekend, not 336 hours it would have been if it had actually been flowing for two weeks.

What was even more disturbing than the length of time this thing was gushing was the fact that it emptied almost directly into the Cherry Brook, which runs about a quarter of a mile downstream directly into recreational waters, Lake Oratam, and then on to the West Branch of the Saddle River. (visual) This is a photograph of the manhole and its proximity to the brook. Just a few feet from the two-foot-high raised manhole is a pitched incline down to the water. Thereís also a ditch at the edge of the woods that leads directly to the brook, so any overflow pooling around the manhole had a direct course to run into the brook at the edge of the woods.

At this point, I still didnít have the FOILed spill report, so I decided to do an estimate of the volume. I asked a local Airmont resident, who is an engineer and has actually designed sewer systems to work with me. He got the specific information we needed. The pipe feeding into the manhole was a 12" line descending a slope that fell 6.85 vertical feet for every 100 feet. I wanted to be as conservative as possible, so I asked Ron what would be the lowest number we could use for the slope to get the velocity of the material passing through the pipe. He said a .22 feet per 100 feet, and that would give us a much slower velocity of 2 feet per second. (visual) So this was our yardstick.

We had the velocity and the length, so now we needed the volume that would be passing through this pipe every second. That would be π r2 h. I was very surprised to find that this piece of pipe would hold 11.75 gallons. Times 60 for one minute, times 60 for volume in an hour, times 60 hours (our time-line for the weekend). The amount of unprocessed sewage that went into those woods, spilling down into that brook, gentlemen, was 2.5 million gallons. My first response was, My God. And then my mind turned to the other spills for which we had documents. This single event was 2 Ĺ times the entire total of those other 100 spills. The largest spill in the last 5 years, according to the Districtís reports was 100,000 gallonsóeven though some of the wet weather events were simply surrounded by traffic cones and allowed to peter out on their own, running for hours. I became a little suspicious, but I also still had trouble accepting our total. I asked the engineer to run the numbers again. There had to be a mistake. There wasnít.

Ron reminded me at this point that we are assuming that the pipe is full for this calculation. Well, itís difficult to imagine it as anything other than that when you remember the neighborsí description of a geyser erupting from the top of the manhole. The pipe comes down a long hill and connects up 8 or 10 feet below ground right at this juncture and then fires a column straight up 10 feet or more into the air. In our calculation we had reduced the slope from almost 7 feet to a few inches to allow for any skepticism and the flow was still powerful enough to make it up above ground. One gallon of water weighs 8.34 pounds, so for each length of our yardstick at the bottom of the run was loaded with 98 pounds under pressure. Add in the hundreds or thousands of feet uphill from the juncture and the pressure would be measured in tons.

I apologize for the length of this explanation, but the enormity of this spill, where it ended up, and the long shadow that it casts on some of the other reports required a double and triple check on this estimate.

The Damage

About a quarter of a mile downstream of this manhole in the woods is Lake Oratam, which is really two connected small lakes. In the summer, with kids home from school, the waterís edge is a tempting place for them to play and try to catch turtles. People kayak in these waters, and one of the neighbors (there are 7 families living around the lake) showed me a shady spot where the grass is stepped down. An elderly gentleman comes down to the lake and fishes there. No official of this county warned him or those kids or their parents about what was arriving in the deep channels of their Lake in August. It might have been 2.5 million gallons if it was only a 60-hour event, but if the anecdotal information was correct indicating more like two weeks, the number could have been as high as 14 million gallons.

Whoís Responsible

I donít blame the neighbors for not calling the Sewer District that Friday afternoon. I think most people would not know who should be the first to call. I also donít blame the man on litter patrol in Airmont that Saturday morning, but I think he has since been given the procedure to follow if this should happen again. I would ask, though, that someone take an official look into the Ramapo DPW and Ramapo Police responses to the calls on Friday.

Then there is the next level after the breakdown in the system for notification.

This is the official report for spill dated August 31, 2006.

(use text): Date and the 1st paragraph--?

Arrival Monday morning to 1:05 = 4,000 gallons? (Text reads as though the flow was constant while they were working to shut it down. Would not have said "appears to have been intermittent"óif it was stop and start while they worked to shut it down they would have said "it was intermittent." So I guess it was constant while they were working on it, and if that took several hours is 4,000 gallons even in the ballpark? Four thousand gallons would pass through this size pipe at the slowest velocity in less than six minutes. They got done at 1:05.

Then thereís the causeóthe cement block. Looked like a pretty dedicated example of vandalism. Curiously, the 17-inch block was still there weeks later.

I had already posted my story on the website, but now that I had the official report from the sewer district, I decided to follow up. It was the first week of October and no official had yet contacted anyone in the neighborhood.

On October 3, I called the Sewer District office and spoke to Michael Saber, the engineer who had written the report. I told him what the neighbors had told me, and I also explained our estimate of the spill. He told me that when his people arrived Monday morning, there was not much of a spill. I was surprised that he didnít directly challenge our number, yet I couldnít get him to agree to re-examine the record.

That same Tuesday afternoon, Oct 3, I spoke with Lenny Meyerson, head of the wastewater division at the DEC in White Plains. He said he would address the matter with the Sewer District #1, and if the report needs to be amended, he would get statements in writing.

Thursday, Oct. 5, I spoke with Scott McKane of the Board of Health. I gave him an update about how we arrived at our numbers, and told him of my conversation with the DEC. He said the sewer district might have changed the numbers on the report, because his report listed the amount of the spill as unknown. I gave him my sources and he said he would check it out. When I asked him about testing the brook and lake because the people were still pretty upset, he said if the lake was tested for cfus (coliform fecal units) they would probably be all gone by now. When I asked him about heavy metals and other pathogens that are also found in sewage and might more likely remain in place, he didnít answer.

The story, for now, ends here. It is Oct 26, almost exactly two months since the flood of 2.5 million gallons of sewage found its way into ours and New Jerseyís waterways and, to my knowledge, not a single official from any office has contacted the residents. Last night, I called three of the neighbors who provided information to me about the spill, and none have heard from the Sewer District, the Board of Health, or the Dept. of Environmental Conservation.

For now:

We donít know if the record will be corrected.

We donít know what the legal status of a report as badly flawed as this one is.

We donít know about the accuracy of the other 100+ reports.

And the neighbors donít know what their kids have been exposed to.

I just have a couple concluding remarks.

The way the public was abandoned while this spill was occurring and even after it stopped was shameful and dangerous. And it doesnít take a lot of analysis to understand a major cause of the failure. There is a culture of political intimidation existing today that should have no place in an agency responsible for protecting public health. Let me explain with an example from this chamber.

Last January, in the face of a hundred documented reports, we all heard Mr. St. Lawrence announce that "There is absolutely nothing wrong with the sanitary sewer system in Rockland." He campaigned last fall in his own state of denial about the system. Now what kind of pressure do you think that puts on those working at the sewer district where his name appears on the second line of the letterhead? Your boss has been consistent in this strong public stand, so what do you do when youíre asked to handle the nightmare of millions of gallons of sewage sluiced into a neighborhood lake heading towards a state thatís already angered over past spills?

And when the Sewer District is asked to make an environmental judgment about new development and growth we get: (text of DGEIS stating that the new building will exceed the capacity of the local sewers as they were designed, and that might cause a problem somewhere down the line). Seen through the prism of political intimidation isnít this just an engineer trying to cover both sides of his backside? The professional engineer who notes the obvious scientific facts and then the employee who says, well, maybe weíre headed towards some kind of train wreck but donít worry, itís way down the road.

There are many of us in the community who think there are serious problems with sewage and water in this County, and this culture of political intimidation will not be able to shroud these problems in a fog forever. Unfortunately, the price to pay will be ours-- maybe in the form of a tax horror show when full repairs are made to a system designed for serve a maximum population of 153,00 now serving twice that number; or maybe we will pay with an outbreak of some kind of disease thatís been carried into our yards or ponds via the next spill.

Meanwhile, though, someone should have the decency to go and talk to that man who fishes in Lake Oratam.

Michael Castelluccio
Preserve Ramapo