Stonewalled Again

For more than a year we have been trying to get a simple answer to a simple question. What is the maximum capacity of the county sewer system as it relates to population? The reason for the question is that we have documents from Rockland County Sewer District #1 describing raw sewage spills all over the district, from the New Jersey border to streets adjacent to the Lake DeForest reservoir. Over the last five years, failing sections have flooded streets, yards, and waterways with close to one million gallons of unprocessed sewage in more than 90 incidents. We wanted to know if the problem was an undersized system and just too many people. Was out-of-control growth, especially in Ramapo, dangerously pressurizing the system? After all, the system came online in 1969 when 59,000 people lived in Rockland. It was designed to serve a maximum population of 153,000, which some thought would be reached by 1980. Today, there are 300,000+ living in the county.

An environmental engineer told us that the calculation would not be difficult to make. So we asked Director of RCSD#1 Dianne Philipps, and we got no answer. The Village of Airmont asked her with the same result. At a January 2006 meeting of the sewer commission, I presented the question to one of the commissioners--Ramapo Supervisor Christopher St. Lawrence. He took a copy of the printed question and promised an answer at the Feb. 3rd workshop at Town Hall. I attended that workshop—but again, no answer. We published the question along with several others on our website promising to post the response of any official who submitted answer(s). To date, there have been no takers. Stonewalled.

We have a second critical question about Rockland water that has met the same stubborn silence. At a United Water Company public information meeting in June of this year, I spoke with Donald Distante, Manager of Engineering for the company. I asked if UW did studies of projected future demands on local water resources based on population and growth. When he said they did, I asked if he would be willing to share them with our organization. He said he would, and he gave me his card and asked me to call and/or e-mail. Over the next month I sent e-mails and made more than half dozen phone calls leaving messages that remain unanswered today. Stonewalled again.

I asked the question because legislators, environmentalists, and a study from the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University have recently warned that our burgeoning population may already have taken us past the fail-safe point regarding water resources. The geological study says two consecutive drought seasons will deplete the aquifer beyond its ability to recharge, and it cites overpopulation as the cause. One of the authors of the study, Dr. Nicholas Christie-Blick has told Preserve Ramapo, "[Dr.] Brad Lyon and I predict stage III drought emergencies once every 3-5 years if there is no increase in population. If past patterns hold up, we’re living on borrowed time."

Unfortunately, United Water is a foreign-owned private company and is not subject to Freedom of Information requests. We cannot require them to answer even critical questions such as, "With water resources, what is the tipping point beyond which there will be no return?"

Is there a price to pay for this silence? Certainly. But, sadly, it will be paid by the residents living in the path of the next sewer spill, or the owners of private wells that fail this summer. Not by those who remain unresponsive behind the security of their stone walls.

Michael Castelluccio

Preserve Ramapo