Credibility and the Rockland Sewer Commission         

January 26, New City–-Thursday’s meeting of the Rockland Sewer Commission drew a crowd that included angry residents, village trustees, a councilman from Upper Saddle River, the Journal News  and Channel 12 Cable News. Preserve Ramapo was there to question the members about sewage spills throughout Rockland and especially those in Ramapo. When we arrived, Jim Walsh of the Journal News asked if we thought they knew we were coming. It wasn’t long before the question answered itself.

The agenda for the meeting listed public comment first, but Supervisor St. Lawrence (a member of the Sewer Commission) asked to speak before the public remarks. Any doubt about his preparation for the evening vanished as he began with an attack on the e-mail sent to the Preserve Ramapo community by Robert Rhodes. Then he asked Dianne Philipps (Executive Director of the Sewer District) to address some of the criticisms that she and the district have faced concerning 90 sewage overflows in the past 5 five years. Ms. Philipps also had issues with a meeting that she cancelled in Airmont. And then, out came the charts, and St. Lawrence launched a geyser of numbers, costs, and line flows in a lecture that featured a phrase that he returned to often: “we are proactive.” (We would get the view of the Health Dept. and the DEC about RCSD#1's “proactive stance” the next day–more of that later in this article).

The lecture was followed by four motions presented and passed so rapidly (without discussion) that Airmont Trustee Joseph Meyers, later in the meeting, had to ask for a list of the items to be sent to him. Councilman Dennis Schubert of Upper Saddle River pressed the Commission about a timetable for the proposed repairs for the South Monsey location where there have been 10 spills in the last two years. After some hedging, Ms. Philipps said they might be able to get the items on the 2007 budget, and then plans might be drawn, approvals made to be sent out for bids–in short, the proposal was for “proactive” repairs years from now.

The motions proposed included: 1. “To put flow meters in the areas where we need them”; 2. “To conduct a sewer system evaluation study to determine the cause of all overflows. . .for the entire system”; “Conduct a hydraulic study that we now make the connection from Twin Lakes to the Ramapo Interceptor”; 4. “We purchase a flusher for the Clarkstown System, two tanker trucks, and a television system for the Clarkstown system.”

After he finished the motions, two members of the Commission offered positive comments and then the agenda returned to public comments.

Credibility

What appears below is the full text of the comments from Preserve Ramapo (read by Michael Castelluccio with panels of photographs of two recent sewage spills presented by David Snyder).

“I have a couple of questions, but first I have a few comments about a serious problem concerning credibility.

Last year, a resident FOILed the Sewer District for documents on all sewage spills for the last 5 years. These are the documents that he received—90 incidents involving an estimated total of 870,000 gallons of raw sewage spilled onto the streets, in the yards, and into the waterways in Monsey, Airmont, Spring Valley, Suffern, New Square, and so on. Most of these spills 74 out of 90 occurred in Ramapo—that’s 82%.

During the fall election campaign, a member of this board was going around publicly denying the facts in these reports. In a Hillcrest appearance on Oct. 18, he appeared with Gary Wren (Supervisor of Sanitary Sewers for Ramapo) and both ridiculed these numbers. In a formal debate a few days later in Spring Valley, Mr. St. Lawrence again denied the facts in these reports. Both officials agreed the spills could not have amounted to more than 2,000 gallons, if that. Now, both of these individuals have accepted positions which include the responsibility of addressing these problems, and going around publicly denying them doesn’t help that effort. I don’t know if they are uninformed, are in denial, or were just dissembling for political reasons, but their public comments have damaged not only their own credibility, but yours as well. If the Supervisor still has any doubts about these reports, we can forward copies of these documents to his office. I would point out that the first 10 incidents listed were all in Ramapo and they spilled 121,950 gallons in Monsey, Spring Valley, and Chestnut Ridge--not 2,000 gallons, almost 122,000 and that’s just the first ten.

Also, in the fall, the Executive Director of Rockland County Sewer District 1 agreed to come to an Airmont Board meeting to answer questions about sewage spills in the village. At the last minute, on the day of the meeting, Ms. Phillips decided to cancel. The reason—the press would be present at the meeting. A month or two later, a private meeting with a group of four was arranged, again with the stipulation—no press. At the beginning of the meeting, one of the Airmont residents asked if he could tape record the meeting to avoid mistakes in his reporting back to the board and village. He was told no. If he insisted on recording the meeting, there would be no meeting. Ms. Phillips is a public employee, the issues concerned public health and planning, and yet the ultimate question that Airmont was left with after that meeting was, “What do they have to hide?” Incidentally, there were several important questions asked at that meeting for which the Director promised to get back with answers. Today, those questions still remain unanswered.

And finally, anyone today attending Ramapo town meetings that are considering new building or planning and the impact on the sewer system are likely to hear the following statement in letters sent by your engineer: (incidentally, I have two examples here, one from Feb 2002 and the other more recent, Feb. 2005—the line has apparently become boilerplate, it reads) “the following changes or variances will increase the building density resulting in higher quantities of sewage from this project than for which the system was designed.” The language is hardly ambiguous—“resulting in higher quantities of sewage. . .than for which the system was designed.” You put more weight on a support beam, or fluid in a container, or air in a balloon than that for which it was designed, and things break, overflow, or explode. Your statement, however, is followed in the letters with “The practice of increasing density and consequently sewage flows may lead to an overload of the Sewer District’s facilities in the future.” The logic here is tortured. If the first statement is true, that following line should read “will lead to an overload.” Especially when you recall that the sewer system came online in 1967 when 59,000 lived here in the county. Designed to serve a maximum population of 153,000 which some thought would be reached by 1980—today there are about 300,000 people in the county. Can we assume that this line will continue to be the standard measured advice of your engineer approving new building? And that will continue until what—the system collapses on itself? If the original designers saw the system maxing out at 153,000 residents, what does Mr. LaFiandra see as the maximum capacity?

Damaged credibility has a political cost. More than that, though, it becomes an even more serious liability for anyone who is being deposed by a plaintiff, and the situation in Airmont is beginning to take on the look of an inevitable lawsuit either from someone in the neighborhood or by our Jersey neighbors downstream of this pollution. But the worst consequence of these kinds of denial might come in the form of an outbreak of contagion made possible by your negligence. I noticed on your mission statement that there is a promise to provide “needed sewer services in order to protect and enhance our precious water resources in a high quality, ethical, courteous, timely, and cost-effective manner”—I hope that you take that mission seriously.

Just as a footnote for those of you who might be hearing these numbers or stories for the first time. If you would like a mineshaft test canary, I suggest you take a close look at manhole 10019 on South Monsey Road in Airmont. In the past two years it has erupted 10 times and the events are now occurring one month apart. The latest, last Wednesday, flowed for four continuous hours. And I know mechanical engineers are inclined to say, “Sure, but it’s so diluted it’s not much of a threat.” Two samples were taken last week, and despite the dilution of a four-hour flow, the results were disturbing. The cfu (fecal coliform units per 100 mL registered more than 200,000. The EPA standard for partial contact as a health threat “calls for an average of no more than 2,000 fecal coliforms per 100 mL.” Last week’s spill exceeded the EPA’s safe threshold for contact by a factor of 100 times.   

Three questions:

1.   We have been told by an environmental engineer that “sanitary sewers are designed and sized to transport only wastewater, but a generous allowance is made to handle a certain amount of infiltration from rainwater.” Are the lines in Airmont now incapable of handling rain events? Is this a problem throughout the system? And since highly contaminated spills once a month are unacceptable, how can this be fixed?

2.   What is the current maximum capacity of the sewer system in numbers relative to population? What contemporaneous measurements do you have that could create this set of numbers? Are there critical data you don’t have? When will (or when did) the system reach maximum capacity? Was it in 1980?

3.   Ramapo Master Plan. Your response to the original Draft Generic Environmental Impact Statement (DGEIS) warned that the increased building density would result in higher quantities of sewage flowing than for which the system was designed. You also explained in your letter that the existing collecting system may not have adequate capacity to handle the increased flow due to the changes in zoning. And your engineer said he did not have the data needed for decisions because the DGEIS does not provide information for the District to quantitatively assess the number of additional units that the comprehensive plan will encumber on the sewer system. The mayors presented this letter to the Supervisor but were not given any answers. With no independent review by outside consultants, as there was with traffic and the drinking water supply, a findings statement by Mr. Ron Delo (former director of RCSD) concluded: “Sewage collection facilities have the capacity to handle the projected flows.” What happened between steps A (DGEIS) and B (Findings letter) to correct the problems and answer the questions?”

Christopher St. Lawrence promised to address the three questions in a public workshop on sewers at Ramapo Town Hall that will be held Friday, Feb. 3 at 2 p.m. He took a copy of the questions and one was given to the clerk.

The Next Day

On Friday, phone calls were made to the Rockland County Board of Health and DEC in Tarrytown to get their views of the situation. We especially wanted to know why RCSD#1 has never paid fines for spills that were dangerous and occurring again and again at the same locations.

The Board of Health told us that the days of the District escaping fines are over. The representative referred us to the DEC for additional information. The DEC attorneys are in the process of preparing an Order of Consent that will force the Sewer District to begin to address chronic problems that have been ignored over the years and have reached critical levels. We were also told that our FOILed count of 90 spills was actually a little short. The Department of Environmental Conservation has records of more than 100 in a shorter time span than the last five years.

The Consent Order can be finalized (there are legal negotiations to come) in a month or two. We will follow these developments.

Michael Castelluccio