If nothing else, the two forums that have been held recently about East Hampton Town’s scavenger waste plant on Springs-Fireplace Road are putting the matter of the long-term quality of our groundwater back into the public dialogue. This is important for several reasons, not the least of which is that thousands of residents depend on shallow, private wells for potable water, and many of them are highly vulnerable to contamination.
As to the plant itself, it was closed as a treatment facility last year after the town was cited by the State Department of Environmental Conservation for illegal discharges and other violations. Since then, East Hampton Town Supervisor Bill Wilkinson and Councilwoman Theresa Quigley have been a two-vote bloc pressing to sell the plant for $300,000. A quick sale was thwarted, however, and the dissenting board members have embarked on a fact-finding effort to figure out what to do in a serious, measured way.
There are two major questions. The first is whether the Town of East Hampton should reopen the multimillion-dollar plant and to what end. It could be run as a waste-holding and transfer station, or it could be fixed up, at a cost so far unknown, and run as a treatment facility. The other big issue is what the town will do in the long term about water quality and septic waste, particularly from home systems.
Increasingly, scientists and others are realizing that failing and outdated septic systems are not just a threat to drinking-water aquifers but to surface waters — our bays and harbors — as well. Developers and some environmentalists say that small, decentralized sewage plants are the answer, but, while the technology may be promising, there is a high degree of risk.
Such new systems may be expensive or complicated to maintain, and there is little that local governments can effectively do, given their limited staffs and resources, to make sure they function properly. Speaking earlier this year about wastewater, Bob DeLuca, the president of the Group for the East End, said that municipal treatment facilities tended to “do better” at protecting the environment than private plants. Government accountability, he said, made the difference.
The organizers of a Town Hall meeting Saturday about the waste plant and related issues, Sylvia Overby and Dominick Stanzione, are on the right track in trying to develop a long-range strategy, based on groundwater testing and the best available science. This is a major issue for the Town of East Hampton and one that is not going to go away by selling the Springs-Fireplace Road facility for a paltry $300,000.