Orangetown to Back Water Desalination Proposal; 3-2 Split Vote Expected Next Tuesday

BY ROBERT KNIGHT
CITY EDITOR
ROCKLAND COUNTY TIMES

The Town of Orangetown appears to have switched sides and now supports, barely, a controversial proposal to require a special public hearing on United Water Resources request to construct a water desalination plant in the Hudson River at Haverstraw. The proposal received a second, hour-long public comment period at this week’s workshop meeting of the council, but achieved a far different result than a similar meeting the week before.

At the May 14 meeting, the board appeared split 4-1 along strictly political lines against requiring the special hearing, a position that placed the board on the side of United Water and against a coalition of local resident and conservation groups that are demanding the hearing. At this Tuesday’s workshop session, however, the board reversed gears and voted informally 3-2 in favor of requiring the hearing, leading to a standing ovation from the partisan residents attending in the audience.

Since formal votes don’t normally occur at workshop meetings, the board instead voted 3-2 to place the item on the formal agenda of next week’s business meeting, at which action will be taken. That meeting is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, May 28, at the Town Hall in Orangeburg.

The Issue

At issue is United Water Resources effort to construct a water desalination plant in the Hudson River off Haverstraw, to provide an additional clean supply of potable drinking water to liquid starved Rockland County.

The company, now called United Water – Suez, is a French-owned firm which purchased the old Hackensack Water Company, which in turn had earlier purchased the former Spring Valley Water Company, purveyor of water to all of Rockland County except for the Village of Nyack, which has its own independent water system.

United Water – Suez applied to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation for a rate increase for all Rockland customers a couple of years ago, and eventually was successful. As part of its approval, however, the DEC also required the company to construct an additional supply of clean fresh water for the county, noting that the existing supply just barely met the county’s current needs, and would not provide any cushion for future residential or commercial growth in Rockland, thus limiting its development potential.

United Water, in turn, said its current water supply is limited, and cannot be expanded without a new source of the precious liquid. Current sources, the company says, are the Lake Tappan and Lake DeForest Reservoirs and the various well fields in Ramapo and at Letchworth Village.

New Sources

New sources of additional water, the firm claims, are purifying sewer sludge from the Rockland County Sewer plants at Hillburn and Orangeburg, constructing its long-desired Ambrey Pond reservoir in Stony Point, or building a water desalination plant in the Hudson River near Haverstraw.

United Water President Michael Pointing made a personal appearance at this week’s Orangetown board meeting to explain to the five-member council and the public in attendance why the firm had eventually selected the desal plant proposal as its final  choice, and is now preparing to start construction on the controversial facility.

The DEC ruling in the 2006 rate case was time limited, Pointing said, and the company is thus required to start construction on something quickly, or lose the approval and go back to square one and start all over again. Additionally, the DEC has already given United Water permission to proceed with the desalination plan, and rarely retracts approvals it has already granted.

Issues Conference

Protestors claim that a little known and little used section of state law permits the DEC to hold a special “Issues Conference,” however, if there is a proven need to study new facts and information not previously known. The objectors, working through the Rockland County Water Coalition umbrella, have been busy gathering that data over the past few months, and claim they now have sufficient evidence to prove the DEC should rescind its previous approval and deny construction of the desal plant.

Because an Issues Conference is not required by either the DEC or state law, the Coalition members have been lobbying local organizations and political entities to petition the state environmental agency, beseeching the DEC to agree to holding such a session anyway, and holding United Water accountable for the hearings’ recommendations.

So far, the Coalition has enlisted the support of several regional and Hudson River-based environmental organizations and endorsements from three or four of Rockland’s 18 villages. The Stony Point Town Board recently became the first of Rockland’s five townships to endorse the conference, and it now appears Orangetown will become the second. While Stony Point’s support was unanimous, on a 5-0 vote, Orangetown appears poised to vote 3-2 in favor of requesting the DEC to hold the special hearing.

The Rockland County Legislature, led by Chairwoman Harriet Cornell, has also unanimously endorsed the call for the Issues Conference.

Supporting the resolution in Orangetown are Supervisor Andrew Stewart, the board’s only Democrat and Executive Director of Keep Rockland Beautiful prior to becoming head of town government in January of 2011 two years ago and Republican Councilmen Thomas Diviny and Thomas Morr. Staunching opposing it are GOP Council members Denis Troy and Paul Valentine.

If the board does in fact approve the resolution, the detractors note that it is only a memorializing resolution, and carries no legal weight with the DEC. No matter how many such resolutions are sent to that agency from however many jurisdictions and organizations, it is not required to hold an Issues Conference, they note. And since the agency has already decided not to require the hearing, the detractors claim it is doubtful the agency will backtrack and order one anyway.

Economic Issue

In statements Tuesday to the Orangetown board, United Water President Pointing said speed and economics are the two primary issues leading the firm toward pursuing the desal plant over other alternatives for providing additional water.

The engineering plans are already done and have been tested, at both the design and operational levels, Pointing said, and thus could be made operational the quickest. He estimated the plant could be built and operating within two years if the company gets the green light in the next few months.

Concerning cost, Pointing said the desal plant would cost about $135 million, of which $43 million has already been invested and $8 million actually spent, none of which can be recovered if the facility is never built. The cost of building Ambrey Pond would be $200 to $215 million and would require the construction of two dams as well as the reservoir itself, along with the purchased of hundreds of acres of additional residential land.

Pointing said the cost of constructing a filtration and purification plant to treat the Ramapo sewer effluent was estimated to be about $245 million, the most expensive of the three proposals, the most complicated to design and build, and the most controversial since it operates by attempting to clean sewer water and convert it into drinking water.

The desal plant, by contrast, takes clean but salty Hudson River water and merely takes the salt out of it, a far easier and better plan to provide potable drinking water for Rockland residents in his estimation.

Objections

Objectors to the desal proposal quote several statistics and experts who appear to differ markedly with Pointing, however.

They claim the Hudson River at Haverstraw Bay contains irradiation from the Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant directly across the river at Buchanan. In addition the river contains contamination from upstream, especially from old factories at Albany and above, the opponents say, and the new plant at Haverstraw would destroy aquatic life in the bay, including several species of fish, eel, crabs and other marine inhabitants who call the bay their home and their breeding grounds.

The opponents also claim to have testimony from several local, regional, national and international experts whom they want to testify at the special Issues Conference who were not permitted to speak at earlier DEC hearings. They claim those hearings were dominated by United Water and its supporters, and short shrift was given to opponents who were not given sufficient time to organize their objections.

Opponents further contend that the conference, if held, could re-open a 2006 rate case in which United Water sought a substantial customer rate increase. Based on the company’s testimony at that time, and its asserted need to supply water for not only Rockland but neighboring Bergen County as well, the DEC granted the rate increase.

And they add that the DEC also fined United Water shortly after that decision for releasing too much Rockland reservoir water into New Jersey, shortchanging Rockland customers.

Finally, the opponents note that a study performed from 2005 through 2010 by the U.S. Geological Survey showed that Rockland County’s water aquifers were recharging at a faster rate than had previously been predicted by United Water, thus lessening the firm’s requirement for even more water for Rockland and neighboring New Jersey.

Supporters Speak

United Water did get one supporter on the record Tuesday, however, when Rockland Business Association President Hector May made an impassioned plea to the board to oppose requesting the controversial Issues Conference.

May claimed a similar “loud minority” of residents cost Orangetown taxpayers $10 million several years ago when “a stubborn and misguided homeowners association” persuaded the then Town Board to rescind an already approved building permit for a commercial structure in the Bradley Corporate Park in Blauvelt. The owners, the Magee Brothers, sued the town and won an $8 million judgment, along with $2 million in costs, which took Orangetown a decade to pay off.

“Don’t repeat the same mistake,” May implored the board, noting that Orangetown’s future depends on attracting desirable ratables to the land it still has available for future development. A key element in developing that land, such as the 100 or more acres still available at the former Rockland Psychiatric Center campus, is the quick and cheap availability of utilities such as water, May claimed.

Requesting the DEC to hold an Issues Conference will just delay the process and make it more expensive, but will not change the end result, he estimated. What it might do, however, is delay any chances Orangetown has of selling any of its available land for redevelopment in the immediate future, since the state will not be able to certify that an adequate water supply exists for such development.

Limited Supply

In its push for the desal plant, United Water has contended that its existing sources of water in Rockland are at their limits, and cannot be expanded.

Rockland currently gets it water from a series of underground wells, mostly in Ramapo and at the old Letchworth Village campus in Haverstraw and Stony Point, and from the Lake DeForest and Lake Tappan reservoirs in Clarkstown and Orangetown, respectively.

Both reservoirs are fed by the Hackensack River, which is also the main source of water for neighboring Bergen County, NJ to the south. Because of the interstate complication, United Water is required to send most of its reservoir water south to the Garden State, to serve their even larger need for the precious liquid.

Testimony

Opponents of the desal plant contend that testimony on the DEC fine and the federal study should be fully introduced at an Issues Conference, since they were allegedly not placed into evidence at the earlier hearings because they occurred after the 2006 sessions.

In addition, they want the introduction of considerable new evidence they claim is now available from a multitude of state, federal and private organizations, among them Columbia University’s Lamont Geological Observatory, a world-renowned scientific campus based in Orangetown along the Hudson River at Palisades.

Last week, more than a dozen speakers from the Rockland Water Coalition besieged the Orangetown Town Board for over an hour, demanding that the five-member council take a vote to officially request the DEC to order an Issues Conference so new testimony can be provided and hopefully taken into consideration in any possible agency decision.

Each of the speakers listed multiple reasons why they felt the desalination plant would be bad for Rockland County and in particular Orangetown. It would not only threaten the local supply of pure drinking water, they claimed, but would lead to a tremendous increase in rates local residents would have to pay the water company to fund the plant construction and operation.

Much Support

Larkin was joined in her plea by Pearl River resident Michael Mandel, who said the proposed desal plant was unnecessary because it would be cheaper, easier and quicker for United Water to drill additional wells, repair multiple water leaks in its current distribution system, send less water to New Jersey and stop providing unlimited water supply to Ramapo for its insatiable appetite for new multi-family housing. Instead of telling Ramapo that it can continue providing it with a limitless supply of water, thus guaranteeing that the new housing can continue being built, United Water should tell them “no,” there isn’t a sufficient supply of water, thus bringing their uncontrolled residential growth to a screeching halt.

Mandel also noted that 24,000 Rockland residents have already signed petitions to the DEC requesting an Issues Conference be held, and that the signers represent all municipalities in the county as well as every political, religious, social, environmental, economic and other segment of Rockland’s varied population.

Tom O’Reilly, a 56-year resident of Pearl River, also supported the Issues Conference, and joined Larkin in condemning Ramapo’s role in forcing creation of the “environmental nightmare.”

As the Orangetown meeting was being held, O’Reilly said, Ramapo is in the process of granting approval to a huge new multi-family development at the former Patrick Farm in Pomona that will force the plant to be built because it will require so much water to serve its planned huge population. The development will destroy an existing water aquifer, O’Reilly contended, noting it is being planned for a swampy area off Routes 202 and 306 that cannot support such a project.

Joining the list of speakers favoring the Issues Conference were Tappantown Historical Society President Carol LaValle, Sparkill historian Larry Vail and several members of Orangetown’s own environmental task force.

Sensing the reluctance of the GOP majority on the council, most speakers sad they weren’t seeking a resolution opposing the desalination plant, just a resolution asking the DEC to call for the Issues Conference, so additional testimony and evidence can be offered, leading to a more and better informed decision by the state agency.

Board Responses

Supervisor Stewart defended his position favoring both an Issues Conference and his opposition to the desal plant, but explained to the somewhat hostile audience that he hadn’t attempted to place the item on the Town Board agenda that evening “because I realized that I didn’t have the votes, and it would have been a waste of time.”

He said he had in fact placed the item on the agenda for last week’s workshop meeting of the board, where this week’s agenda was prepared, only to be met with what he viewed as unanimous opposition for all four Republican councilmen.

Council members Denis Troy, Thomas Morr, Thomas Diviny and Paul Valentine seemed to echo that viewpoint at this week’s meeting, noting that all they have heard so far are voices of opposition, led by environmentalists and members of the Rockland Water Coalition.

Diviny summed up their position in giving the closing words on the controversial issue, before the board went on to other topics on their agenda. “I will not allow that item to be placed on the agenda,” Diviny asserted, “until and unless a public hearing is held here in Orangetown first, where everyone can give their opinion and tell us what they really thing about this issue.”

Diviny Expands

And he would not even allow such a public hearing to be held, the attorney/councilman added, unless United Water was specifically invited in advance and permitted to testify in its own behalf on why they think the desal plant is needed.

After such a balanced hearing is held, Diviny said’ he would then consider voting on whether or not to ask the DEC to schedule an Issues Hearing. He declined to say how he would vote if such a motion ever came up, saying he would cross that bridge when and if it arrived.

As a final gesture to the by now confused and largely disappointed audience, both Diviny and Stewart did agree to continue talking to each other about a public hearing, leaving open the possibility of at least an Orangetown hearing of some sort, if not a full-blown DEC Issues Conference.

Diviny also urged the audience to stop beating up on neighboring Ramapo Township, claiming it will do no good and just create more animosity between Ramapo and the rest of Rockland County.

“Orangetown can’t make Ramapo be more responsible,” Diviny asserted. “They have uncontrolled growth over there and apparently that’s what they want and like and it won’t stop just because we say so.”