BY SHERLY JOURDAIN
On Tuesday, the Rockland Water Coalition gathered a large crowd together with regional environmental and local groups against United Water’s Haverstraw Water Supply Project. They met at a press conference prior to a 2 p.m. public hearing on the project held by the DEC.
The project is commonly referred to as the “desalination plant.” Over 40 people gathered in front of town hall with protest signs that included pictures of coastal fish and wildlife habitat that opponents say will be adversely affected by the plant. The press conference drew former and present Rockland elected officials such as former Rockland County Legislator Connie Coker, newly elected Orangetown Supervisor Andy Stewart and Clarkstown Councilwoman, Shirley Lasker.
The Haverstraw Water Supply project has been a matter of consideration for the past several years, but it has recently gained traction in Rockland County as United Water has been promoting the project is giving tours to of a pilot plant near the Hudson River. Some of the concerns opponents of the project at the press conference expressed were: perceived risk to public health of drinking Hudson River water; effect on wildlife of the Haverstraw Bay; and rising costs of water for United Water customers and Rockland businesses.
Orangetown Supervisor Andy Stewart (D) opposes the Project because he believes that there are other options to be explored. “I am for sustainable water management…Before the taxpayers spend millions of dollars on a desal plant, shouldn’t we be taking a look at upgrading our waste water treatments like the ones in Orangetown? Ramapo River advanced water treatment plant treats water to a much higher level and then it goes back into the Ramapo River. And that seems like a good thing; I would like to see that explored for Orangetown’s treatment plants,” he said.
Former Rockland County Legislator of District 17, Connie Coker, expressed that she understands that Haverstraw Town Supervisor Howard Philips is doing what he thinks is the best for his town, however, one of the reasons Coker disagrees with the supervisor’s support for the plant is because of the financial hard times that the county is currently experiencing. “The county is $80 million in debt and if water bills go up, it’s going up for every municipality…and then that will make taxes go up. If the cost of government goes up, taxes will go up. So I feel like this is irresponsible action at this time, to build this desalination plant in this time of financial crisis.”
Environmental Attorney Susan Shapiro, who is adamantly opposed to the plant, agreed as well stating, “We’re talking about $4-$500 a year at the beginning per family, additional cost in water. Do we want our water bills to be that much higher? We need an independent cost estimation.” Shapiro also claimed that much of the water will be exported to New Jersey and the deal that was made with New Jersey in the 1950s and 60s needs to be renegotiated so that New Jersey will start paying its fair share for water.
After the half-hour press conference, the 2 p.m. public hearing began at the town hall. Organizations such as Citizens Campaign for the Environment, Rockland AARP and Food and Water Watch were some of the organizations present among Rockland residents such as New City resident Rita Garner.
Garner attended the hearing to learn more about the facts but left earlier than anticipated because the room was filled to capacity and she could not hear the speakers. “You would think that if they want everyone to hear what’s going on inside that they would have a speaker system,” she said.
While the opposition to the Haverstraw Water Supply project was obviously strong, there were some Haverstraw elected officials and residents present who support the project such as Village of West Haverstraw Mayor John Ramundo Jr. “We are in need of water supply let alone years from now. Something needs to be done. A reservoir will not help in a drought. But if you’re taking water from the Hudson…salt water, it’s done all over the world, with the technology today it’s a viable way to go. It’s also going to be (and I don’t deny this), a benefit to our economy here, locally, in the Town of Haverstraw,” said Ramundo, a former employee of United Water. He said he hoped the anti-desal activists would realize the project is nothing to be panicked about, as they seem to be.
Village of Haverstraw Mayor Mike Kohut supports the desalination plant and disagrees with opponents’ assertion that the plant will be a major public health concern. “They make the water so pure that they have to reintroduce the minerals to the water to give it flavor,” said Kohut. “That’s how pure the water becomes, that it’s not tasteable. So they reintroduce minerals after the process is completed just to give the water flavor, so it tastes like normal water, that’s how much gets out.”
Mayor Ramundo also expressed that with reverse osmosis and the quality of the technology at United Water’s disposal, he has all the confidence in the world that the water will be safe to drink.
Garnerville resident and President of the Rockland Business Association (RBA), Al Samuels, also supports the desalination plant. The RBA has publicly come out in the support of the project as being good not only for Rockland but also Rockland’s businesses. “As a Haverstraw resident, I want the ratable…North Rockland is crippled with taxes….And I also want to see the jobs. I want to see the construction jobs. I want to see guys belong to the building trades in Rockland County go back to work. Right now it’s about 30 percent of them who are out of work,” said Samuels.
Samuels also stated that he is on the Governor’s Regional Economic Council and is the Chair of the Inhibitor’s Work Group. The task of the group is to assess what inhibits economic development in the Hudson Valley region. “One of the primary infrastructure issues,” he said, “that we uncovered was water and sewer and nowhere in the region was the issue of water more serious than Rockland County.”
Subsequently, according to Samuels, the Public Service Commission mandated United Water to find an alternative resource for water. “This wasn’t something the water company lobbied for they were told ‘you better do it,’” said Samuels. The Water Supply project was deemed by United Water to be the most cost-effective and feasible route after conducting an exhaustive study of other options.
The State’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) must approve the Haverstraw Water Supply project before United Water officially proceeds with it. Some members of the DEC were part of coordinating the public hearing. They collected written statements from the public and organized a speaker’s list for members of the public.
Regional Director of Rockland County, William Janeway, was among the DEC members present and greeted people as they entered town hall, directing them to the DEC’s table. When asked the role of the DEC in the public debate over the Plant Janeway said, “We are now in the point of the process where are soliciting input and comments from all citizens and concerned stakeholders and we’ve extended that comment period, and when the comment period closes we will take all those comments into consideration in making the decisions going forward.”
More public hearings on the desalination plant are anticipated throughout the county as residents learn about project. In the meantime, it is clear that the issue is causing a stir as the public tries to understand the pros and cons of the desalination plant.
Garnerville resident, Catherine Lynch, attended the public hearing to try to understand the issue but instead left still unsure about it. “It’s very confusing to tell you the truth…I listened to a lot of things. So I’m going to go on my computer when I go home so I can figure out the DEC, the DEIC…” However, another Garnerville resident who wishes to remain anonymous strongly supports the Plant. “I think it’s going to create jobs. It’s a proven science that’s been done all over the world. As always, let the science prevail.”
Clarkstown Councilwoman Shirley Lasker, whose daughter is currently pregnant, presented information at the press conference and public hearing on the health risk of drinking even processed Hudson River water for pregnant women. “These are studies that have been done by many scientists over the years…they’ve been finding that tritium in water cannot be taken out by the desal process which is in the water as a result of Indian Point…it goes from the placenta into the fetus and it creates abnormalities, stillbirths and other birth defects.”
Supervisor Howard Philips was unable to attend the 2 p.m. hearing. His assistant, Alex Guarino, spoke on his behalf. The supervisor supports the desalination project as well as former mayor of the Village of Haverstraw, Francis ”Bud” Wassmer. The hearing reconvened later on in the day at 6 p.m.
Rockland residents who wish to learn more on the issue from both sides can visit United Water’s haverstrawwatersupplyproject.com and the Rockland Water Coalition’ssustainablerockland.org.