Award highlights continuing concerns about system capacity and safety
BY CHERYL SLAVIN
The cause of the sewage system failures remains debated, as does the question whether the problem has since been resolved. Julius Graifman, chairman of the Sewage District, claims that most of the overflows occurred as a result of extreme weather conditions when storms or melting snow added extra water into the system. He states that in a system that covers more than 600 miles of pipes, 15,000 manholes, 22 pumping stations and carries more than 8 billion gallons of waste a year, there will always be some problems, but that these are not unusual and can be handled with regular maintenance and emergency response.
Diane Philipps, executive director of the Sewage District, further notes that they have spent “several million dollars” over the last few years to conduct an “infiltration and inflow identification and removal program” designed to identify and fix problem areas. She claims that the issue at the Saddle River Road pumping station has been addressed, although she could not also guarantee that future problems would not arise.
Others, however, disagree with the chairman’s assessment and argue that the overflows are a direct result of severe and unchecked overdevelopment in the Town of Ramapo. Robert Rhodes, chairman of Preserve Ramapo, notes that his organization has been tracking the sewage spill problem for almost a decade without seeing any noticeable improvement in the situation. He alleges that overflows occur with regularity, sometimes spilling tens of thousands of gallons at a time of raw sewage into the streets and yards of Ramapo as well as Upper Saddle River and the Saddle River itself.
He points to massive developments in Monsey and Kaiser as examples of multiple dwellings crowded into areas that are too small to sustain such a large population. He also notes that builders pay little heed to issues such as drainage and water table, resulting in illegal sump pumps or over-paved areas with no outlet for runoff. Ultimately, a system that was once built for about 60,000 residents must now end up bearing the load for upwards of 200,000 residents.
Preserve Ramapo also contends that the problems have not been fixed by the millions the Sewage District has used for repairs. Mike Castelluccio, who maintains the organization’s website, points out that there have been new spills even after the recent lawsuit was settled, including one which occurred right after the judge ruled against the Sewage District in May of this year.
Graifman, however, asserts that over-capacity is not a problem and that the system is fully capable of handling all of the waste legally coming out of Ramapo. He points instead to problems with private home sump pumps illegally hooked up into the sewer system, and restaurants whose improper disposal of fats, grease, and oil clog the pipes. Graifman did concede that the illegal hook-ups are a direct consequence of poor planning and housing development, a point that Rhodes and Castelluccio also make.
When asked why it took a seven year lawsuit and an almost million dollar payment for the Sewage District to address the decades long problem with spillages, Graifman replied that “it takes a long time” to get anything done within local government, including going through the County Executive Office and County Legislature, and that the bidding process took years.
The Preserve Ramapo website has posted a 2007 estimate by the engineering firm of Stearns and Wheler that it would take $50 million to properly upgrade the system, a sum that seems out of reach for the District. Yet, when asked where the funds for the settlement would come from, Philipps noted that the District has a very substantial fund balance which could easily handle a million dollar payout.
Community activists continue to assert that Ramapo Supervisor Christopher St. Lawrence, who is also vice chairman of the Sewage District, is too politically tied to the bloc vote population that continues to demand unchecked housing development in the town to come up with a true solution to the problem. Castelluccio in particular points out that in addition to his positions as supervisor and vice chair, St. Lawrence is also the Ramapo Town Police Commissioner, the president of the Rockland County Solid Waste Management, and the president of the Rockland Local Development Corporation, a concentration of power that protects the supervisor from having to answer to any who oppose him.
Some community members go further and question whether St. Lawrence is qualified to lead the charge to protect Rockland’s water supply against United Water and its proposed rate increases. Supervisor St. Lawrence has not returned phone calls seeking comment.
Meanwhile, with the conduct of the Sewer District affecting relations between Rockland County and its neighbors, County Spokesperson Scott Solatto states, “The county’s number one goal is environmental compliance. We are always looking for ways to improve our sanitary sewer system to make certain our residents and neighbors are safe.”