Much Ado Over Waste

Want more study before quick sale of town plant
Town Councilwoman Sylvia Overby
Town Councilwoman Sylvia Overby called for more deliberation over what to do with the town’s scavenger waste plant during a discussion on Tuesday. Morgan McGivern

    Members of the public weighed in this week about the future of East Hampton Town’s scavenger waste treatment plant, all but one urging the town board at a meeting on Tuesday not to accept a proposal from a company that wants to buy the Springs-Fireplace Road, East Hampton, facility, and saying that the issues involved, including long-term environmental impacts, warrant more time and consideration.
    The town board, split on what direction to go in, could come to no definitive consensus. But, given the go-ahead to talk with East End Processing Corp., which submitted the proposal to operate and purchase the plant, by two out of the other four members of the board, Town Supervisor Bill Wilkinson said he would “begin negotiating” that afternoon.
    Both Mr. Wilkinson and Councilwoman Theresa Quigley want to privatize the plant and to work with East End Processing to draft an acceptable contract. Ms. Quigley suggested that the town first invest the money to make the plant “state of the art,” meeting the most stringent environmental standards, or require the private company to do so.
    Neither of the Democratic board members, Peter Van Scoyoc or Sylvia Overby, is sold on the idea. Both said more investigation is necessary before deciding what to do, and suggested decisions should stem from a comprehensive wastewater management policy that the board should develop.
    Mr. Van Scoyoc said that for now the town should continue operating the plant as a transfer facility — accepting waste brought in by cesspool pumping companies but having it trucked elsewhere for processing — and adjust the budget to allocate money to do so. The 2012 budget adopted by the previous board did not contain money to operate the plant beyond the first few months of the year.
    He said it is “important to first develop policy,” and make decisions based on that before entering into a 30-year contract that could cut off options, and that the town should establish an “environmental baseline” to ensure that the it would not be held responsible in the future for environmental problems it did not cause.
    Both he and Ms. Overby said the board had not fully vetted the possibility of maintaining town control of the plant by hiring a suitable operator, and Councilman Dominick Stanzione, though calling privatization of the plant “the right instinct,” insisted that closing it altogether, or continuing its operation as a transfer facility “are options we need time to explore.” He agreed with the need for a comprehensive septic management plan.
    In the meantime, he said, keeping the transfer facility going “seems to be our best environmental and financial choice — but I’m open to listening to [East End Processing’s] presentation.”
    In response to a call for proposals, the company, which was the sole respondent, suggested buying the plant for $300,000, or leasing it beginning March 30 for a 30-year term for $1,000 a month, with an option to buy.
     Councilwoman Overby called the company’s proposal “horrible.” “We abdicate almost everything, as a community, to a private entity,” she said. “At this point, with this contract, this is not the time to privatize,” she said.
    The community should decide, she said, whether it is worth investing the money needed to create a “state-of-the-art” treatment plant, for which grant money would likely be available. She suggested, but could not get the board majority to approve, immediately convening a committee to help the board vet some of the issues.
    Kevin McAllister, the Peconic Baykeeper, told the board at the meeting that across Long Island there is increasing “wear and tear to our bays via groundwater” containing nitrogen from wastewater emissions.    
    “I’m not so sure a private entity is going to care so deeply about our local waters as this town board would,” he said. If the plant were privatized, authority over its operations would be the responsibility of the state Department of Environmental Conservation. But, Mr. McAllister said, “there’s a wanting need for greater oversight, and, quite frankly, the D.E.C. is not doing the job.”
    In addition, he said it is important for the town “to define the current conditions in our groundwater” surrounding the plant, and that it would be a “mistake” to allow a private entity to take over the plant without “doing a thorough evaluation . . . of legacy conditions.”
    In a report last year outlining the town’s options as far as the scavenger plant, East Hampton’s budget and finance advisory committee also called for a full environmental review as a first step. Ms. Overby, Mr. Van Scoyoc, and several other speakers called for it to be done.
    However, both Councilman Stanzione and Councilwoman Quigley have expressed concern about the town’s liability should it discover and acknowledge environmental problems stemming from the plant. Ms. Quigley said she had looked at reports from monitoring wells installed to track a solvent plume stemming from the now-capped landfill near the waste plant, and that “there’s no problem.”
    “I say, whatever’s in the ground, I don’t want to be the one to uncover it and say, it’ll cost $100,000, $1 million, $5 million,” Ms. Quigley said.
    The D.E.C. has issued numerous violations citing emissions at the plant that exceeded allowable levels of chemicals, including nitrogen and mercury.
    “The environmental issues associated with the plant quite frankly are unknown,” Mr. Stanzione said. “They’re probably not good. We have to take that into consideration.”
    Both Mr. McAllister and Ms. Quigley suggested that maintaining an ability to process septic waste at the plant could be key to future decisions, such as the potential creation of a town sewer system, in order to protect groundwater. Mention of sewers has often sparked fears of an underlying agenda to increase development, but Mr. McAllister, in a presentation to the board, and board members themselves, including Supervisor Wilkinson, have said that steps for groundwater protection should be considered apart from the development question.
    “You need a sewage treatment plant, a scavenger waste treatment plan — you need private sewers,” Ms. Quigley said. “I know to some people that means more development. I don’t see it that way. I want to solve the problem of nitrates.”
    Unlike most Long Island scavenger waste plants, East Hampton’s sends treated effluent into the ground rather than into a body of water.
    Hy Brodsky questioned whether there is enough information about the effect of “contaminated waters — I don’t care how it’s treated — being shot into our groundwater,” such as the absorption rate through the ground into the aquifer.
    “Any decision you make has to have the ammunition, that you can make a knowledgeable decision,” Mr. Brodsky said. “Right now, it’s a guessing game.”
    “This concerns all of East Hampton,” said Elaine Jones. “Bringing sewage from UpIsland is unacceptable,” she said, referring to an element of the East End Processing proposal. The people of the town, she said, have always been willing to pay for what’s needed to protect the environment and quality of life here. “Have a referendum and let the voters decide,” she said.
    Carole Campolo told the board it should “continue to follow its path of reform,” and that privatizing the plant was th right decision because of the specialized expertise needed to run it.
    A primary responsibility for town government, said Jackie Lowey, an East Hampton resident, is to “protect our air, water, and land.” Entering into the proposed contract with East End Processing, she said, “flies in the face of that.”
    Pat Schutte, whose company, Hamptons Septic Services, is trucking waste away from the plant under a short-term contract with the town to run it as a transfer station, questioned whether there is a need at all for a treatment plant here.
    “Not many carters are using the facility,” he said. According to Councilman Stanzione, 120,000 gallons of waste were deposited at the plant in January. Half came from the Three Mile Harbor Trailer Park, which has problematic septic systems that are regularly pumped, and the other half from a single carter.
    “I agree with quick decisions in government,” Mr. Schutte said, “but just take the next month, and really decide if we want this in our backyard.”
    Bob DeLuca, the president of the Group for the East End, said that wastewater management is a universal problem, but that the data show that municipal facilities “tend to do better. There’s sort of a government accountability factor there.”
    Mr. DeLuca echoed a concern voiced last week by Ms. Overby and Mr. Van Scoyoc that town residents have an outlet, such as the town, versus a private concern or a state regulatory agency, that would be receptive should they have concerns or problems with the plant.
    Whatever decision the board makes about the plant, he said, should stem from the overarching policy.
    Councilwoman Quigley told the board that there is no time to delay making a permanent decision, based on the D.E.C. action plan to which the town is bound.
    The plan, however, allows the town 102 weeks to correct conditions at the plant, should it choose to maintain ownership. It says that, after treatment at the plant has ceased, with waste being transferred, the town may investigate privatization by soliciting proposals, and may execute a contact, if deemed feasible, after completing a “technical design report” that, according to the document, “would establish the baseline condition of the facility as part of the contract with the private entity.”
    “If a public-private option is determined to be the best alternative for the town,” the agreement says that the 102-week rehab schedule “may be revised accordingly.”