[Editor's Note: this health hazard is the responsibility of the Sewer District, not the Dept. of Highways]

E.coli in the Nation’s Food Chain and in the Streets of Ramapo

In the second week of the outbreak, the E.coli infection from spinach has reached 21 states with one reported death and scores hospitalized. The food growers had been warned, and, until now, they had been lucky to avoid this kind of national outbreak that has spread from California to Maine. But authorities here in Ramapo have also been warned. Almost one million gallons of raw sewage has spilled into the streets and waterways of Ramapo over the last five years, and nothing has been done about it.


The Rockland County Sewer District #1 (RCSD #1) has dismissed the spill events as just the results of heavy rain and flooding. Flooding, incidentally, is one of the possible causes of the poisoning of food products in California, according to the FDA. The Director of Rockland Sewer District #1, Dianne Philipps, has refused to discuss the problem in public, ducking out on a scheduled meeting in Airmont when she learned the press would be attending.

Supervisor St. Lawrence, in last fall’s campaign, denied that the spills were occurring with the regularity and severity that Preserve Ramapo claimed. He was either lying or was willing, like the food producers in California, to risk the health, maybe even the lives of his constituents to avoid a politically inconvenient truth. In January, at a meeting of the Rockland Sewer Commission, Mr. St. Lawrence again denied the problem, declaring, "There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the County sanitary sewer system." (Jan. 26, 2006) When Preserve Ramapo offered the stack of spill reports from RCSD #1 documenting the flooding of streets with close to one million gallons of pollution, he refused to take them. A number of other members on the Commission told us at the end of the meeting that they had no idea the situation was that bad.

A Witch’s Brew of Pathogens

E.coli is one species of bacteria in the fecal coliform group commonly found in unprocessed sewage. But it is not the only pathogen that has flowed onto South Monsey Road, Jeffrey Court, Saddle River Road, Route 59, Dutch Lane, and dozens of other locations. (Click here for a chart of the 104 spills.) Bacteria, parasites, and chemical toxins all can be found in sewage, and the resulting infections can range from shigella to hepatitis. And viruses like the Norwalk varieties, enteroviruses (poliomyelitis, echoviruses, and Coxsackie viruses) and rotaviruses can also be in the mix.

The California growers are actually lucky that the outbreak has been limited to E.coli infections. E.coli can make you very sick, but only rarely will it kill you by breaking down kidney functioning.

 

South Monsey Road after a spill

The rail bed has been vacuumed, and lime is spread around the entire area. Manhole # 10019 is out of sight to the left.

 

 

The health threat here in Ramapo has involved street flooding and spills flowing into waterways that are part of water supplies. It has not directly affected the food supply. The toilet paper debris is on front lawns, not, so far as we know, in the backyard gardens or growers’ fields. So how much of a threat are these spills?

In February, two samples were taken from a spill on South Monsey Road—a spill that flowed continuously for four hours. (RCSD #1 estimated it at 2,000 gallons.) The laboratory test of the sample measured >200,000 cfu/100mL. That’s 200,000 fecal coliform units in every 100 milliliters. The EPA has set the safe limit for incidental human contact at 2,000 cfu/mL. In other words, what poured out onto the street, railroad bed, and into the Saddle River heading to New Jersey was 100 times beyond what the environmental agency said is safe to touch—or get splashed on you. And this is not spinach that you had to go out and buy. Those who drove around the cones and through the river pooling on 4 South Monsey Road brought it home to their garages in the wheel wells and undercarriages of their cars.

We have been lucky so far in Ramapo, but so were those in California who didn’t heed the warnings. Their luck ran out last week.

The Petri Dish in Airmont

In the middle of the Village of Airmont is one of the most notorious failure points of the entire sewer system. Manhole cover # 10019 has erupted 10 times in the last two years. Also in Airmont are some of the political friction points that have left residents vulnerable.

When the Village Board of Trustees were given the spill reports, the board contacted Dianne Philipps, inviting her to a future meeting to discuss the problem. After scheduling, Ms. Philipps canceled on the day of the meeting when Mayor John Layne called to tell her that the Journal News would be attending. A later, private meeting was arranged after the Director was assured no press would attend and there would be no tape recording of the proceedings. That meeting involved only a few people, and it left several critical questions unanswered.

Mayor John Layne, for his part, has put on the same "what spills?" blinkers as Supervisor St. Lawrence. In statements made to the Record he has said, "Throughout my discussions with the Rockland County Sewer District over a decade, I have never been told or gotten the sense that there were high-volume spills along these sewer lines at these pump stations." (March 2006) It’s important to note that the very first spill itemized in the list of FOILed documents was truly disturbing (Feb. 11, 2000, adjacent to Monsey Glen Park, 100,000 gallons of untreated sewage). Mayor Layne has these documents.

Partly in response to the unanswered questions about a failing sewer system, the Airmont Board of Trustees called for a 6-month moratorium on building which was later extended. They still do not have the answers they need to make informed planning decisions.

At this point, the story takes a strange turn. For months, the Airmont Planning Board (different group than the Trustees Board) has been reviewing an application for a 200-student school at 4 South Monsey Road. Not only is the building disproportionately oversized for the residential lot, it is only a few feet away from manhole #10019. The driveway of the lot is downstream in the direction of the flow of past spills.

The Planning Board members have been given: The FOILed spill documents; the lab report of the toxicity of the spills; the statement from an environmental engineer arguing that building next to this failing point in the system will make an unacceptable situation worse; a letter from Dr. J. Oppenheim, Vice President of the Rockland Board of Health explaining the threat the location poses to community health; the Consent Order from the DEC fining RCSD #1 for its failure to maintain the sewer system with demands for remedies (first plans due next year); and photographs of recent spills and eyewitness descriptions.

It came as something of a shock then in last month’s meeting to hear the Chairman of Planning Board, Dennis Cohen, and Board Member Douglas Whipple express the opinion that they didn’t think there was any problem with the sewers—that it wasn’t part of their deliberations concerning the application.

Spinach and Social Justice

Just as the bill has finally been presented to the California food producers who disregarded earlier, less severe outbreaks, the price for local politicians might be in the process of being tallied right now—or next week, or next month. We can only hope that the event that calls the Supervisor, Director, Mayor, and Board Members to account for their indifference is no more severe than an E.coli outbreak.

Michael Castelluccio