Waste Plant Review

Privatization looms, future of town facility unclear

    Questions are surfacing about the future of East Hampton Town’s septic waste plant, as the town board is poised to review proposals from private companies interested in leasing and operating the plant. The proposals are due in today.
    The 2012 budget, adopted last fall, includes only enough money to operate the facility, known as the scavenger waste disposal plant, until the end of February. Yet Councilwoman Sylvia Overby, who took office at the beginning of this month, suggested at a meeting last Thursday that numerous questions have yet to be fully answered, including whether it may be better for the town in the long run to maintain control of the plant.
    The plant accepts septic waste pumped from residential and business cesspools by carters who are charged per gallon for dumping. If those costs rise, it would become more expensive to have cesspools pumped, or carters may choose to drive elsewhere to dump, creating traffic and perhaps making the East Hampton plant inoperable, because a certain volume of septic waste is required in order for the plant to run.
    A report issued last spring by the town’s budget and finance advisory committee laid out the questions and issues related to the plant, and analyzed options including pursuing a county takeover of the facility, closing it, turning it into a transfer station only, and privatizing it.
    The committee recommended that the town immediately conduct an environmental review to ensure that the plant could be run safely, without polluting groundwater. Although members of the town board insisted on not discussing them in public, it was subsequently revealed that citations had been issued repeatedly between February 2008 and last March for excessive levels of various elements, including nitrogen and mercury, in discharge from the plant, part of what the state agency called an “ongoing problem.”
    Plans to privatize the facility were developed by consulting engineers and the town board in executive session, and then outlined at a public board meeting last fall.
    Ms. Overby said last Thursday that over the last two years Supervisor Bill Wilkinson and his administration had held summits on deer management and business. The future of the waste treatment plant, she suggested, is also worthy of comprehensive discussion that includes a wide segment of the public.
    Councilman Peter Van Scoyoc, her Democratic counterpart, agreed. “It seems to me we need a broad discussion about all the different options, and the direction that the town needs to go in. There are a number of questions that I think merit having open discussions.”
    The town has been paying about $1 million a year for the plant, which included paying an outside firm, Severn Trent, to operate it. About $400,000 in annual revenue comes in.
    Faced with a deadline in the fall to inform Severn Trent whether the contract would continue, the town board sent a letter saying that it would not be extended.
    Because of the environmental issues, and pursuant to an agreement with the State Department of Environmental Conservation, waste processing at the plant was suspended as of the beginning of the year, and plans made to temporarily operate it as a transfer station only until long-term decisions could be made.
    In late December, the town accepted a bid from a private septic waste company, Quackenbush Cesspools, to run the transfer station. But on Jan. 6, Quackenbush informed the town that it was withdrawing, citing an inability to obtain the proper legal certifications in time.
    Hamptons Septic Services, a company owned by Patrick Schutte, who was just reappointed to the town planning board, was the next highest bidder and so was then awarded the bid. Hamptons Septic holds the town contract for cesspool pumping services, and has done so for several years.
    Quackenbush would have charged the town 13 cents a gallon to haul away septic waste, and 30 cents a gallon for grease, while Hamptons Septic’s price is 14 cents a gallon for septic waste and 30 cents for grease.
    Under the town’s operation of the plant, through Severn Trent, carters could dump septic waste there for 11.5 cents a gallon.
     However, on Dec. 20, after accepting the bid from Quackenbush, the town board increased the charge for dumping waste at the plant to 13.5 cents a gallon for septic waste, and 28 cents a gallon for greasy waste, effectively decreasing the potential margin of profit for the company if it had begun operating the plant as a transfer station.
    With the short-term plan in place, the board must turn to the plant’s long-range future. Councilman Dominick Stanzione said that the proposals due today would be reviewed publicly.
    “Are these bids going to be the decisive factor on the future of the plant?” Jeanne Frankl, an Amagansett resident, asked the board at last Thursday’s meeting. Ms. Frankl is also chairwoman of the East Hampton Town Democratic Committee. Her position prompted Councilwoman Theresa Quigley to accuse her of politicizing the issue.
    In a letter to the editor published in The Star this week, Zachary Cohen, who lost his bid for supervisor on the Democratic ticket this fall by 15 votes, said that “Given the environmental importance of how the plant operates, as well as the importance of how the total cost for this service will rise or fall with each option, the town board is much too hastily and much too secretively heading toward ‘privatizing’ another town asset.”
    “The matter of the disposition of our waste is a problem of momentous importance to every single resident and business person in our town,” Ms. Frankl said at last week’s meeting.
    She asked whether other “objective data,” such as groundwater reports, would be taken into account. Information provided by the town’s consultants on the plants, Cameron Engineering, would be considered, Councilwoman Quigley told her.
    With proposals on privatizing the plant just coming in, and only a minimal amount of money budgeted for its operation, “there’s not much time before we would be spending more than is in the budget,” should the board choose to move in a different direction on the plant, Councilwoman Overby said. There was a time, she said, when it operated in the black.
    “We the town are not equipped to operate a scavenger waste plant,” Ms. Quigley said. “Not only was it a revenue loss, but it was a D.E.C. nightmare.”
    “I think you focus on the core competencies,” Supervisor Wilkinson said. “And the core competencies are not that you operate a scavenger waste.”