The many challenges facing Riverhead’s public water infrastructure are shaping up to be a campaign issue this fall, as longstanding issues with the groundwater plumes likely associated with the former Grumman plant at EPCAL, along with continuing concerns about the capacity and maintenance of the water district’s infrastructure converge with the discovery this month of a groundwater plume of emerging contaminants from the town’s capped landfill in Calverton.
Adding fuel to the firestorm is the town’s practice, once again, of allowing an outside company to store cars waterlogged during the rainfall from the remnants of Hurricane Ida on a runway at EPCAL, a practice that first caused an uproar when damaged cars were stored there after Superstorm Sandy.
Members of the public have long been concerned that these cars could leak fluid into the groundwater there, and could also pose a fire hazard in an area with few fire hydrants. Not only would a potential fire there require hauling of water in tanker trucks, because of the combustable materials in cars, firefighters would likely need to use chemical foam to contain such a fire, which could further contribute to contaminating the groundwater.
A public forum on the town’s water issues, billed as the first of a series of quarterly forums, was held at Town Hall on Sept. 22, after being rescheduled twice — once because Councilman Ken Rothwell, who spearheaded the forum, had a fundraiser for his reelection campaign to attend that night, and again because the second date scheduled fell on the Jewish High Holy Day of Yom Kippur, outraging the town’s Anti-Bias Task Force.
Members of the public peppered the town board with questions about who will pay to connect residents of Calverton and Manorville whose wells contain contaminants, including perfluorinated compounds once used in firefighting foam and non-stick cookware, to public water — both Riverhead Town and the Suffolk County Water Authority (SCWA) have applied for $3.5 million in federal funding for the project.
SCWA’s proposal is to hook up 65 homes in Manorville and Riverhead’s proposal is to hook up 95 homes in Calverton to public water, said Riverhead Community Development Agency Project Supervisor Joe Maiorana.
Cost estimates for the Manorville side range from $5.8 million to $6.3 million, while the Calverton side would cost about $3 million. The total cost of the project would be about $9 million, and the town is seeking other state grant funding through the state’s Water Infrastructure Improvement Act to cover as much of the remaining cost as possible, he added.
Mr. Maiorana laid out a timeline of the town’s request for federal funding, stating that Congressman Lee Zeldin’s office had suggested in April of this year that the town seek funding for just the Calverton side, since SCWA had applied for funding for the Manorville side.
“We are tracking and researching every single possibility for funding,” said Assistant Town Attorney Anne Prudenti. “I have to assure the public, we’re trying to stay a step ahead and work as aggressively as possible so we’ll be first in the queue.”
Town Supervisor Yvette Aguiar sounded a combative note in response to the Suffolk County Water Authority’s involvement.
“I will not let Suffolk County, under my watch, take over our water district,” she said. “That’s the first step in taking over our water district. We have plenty of water. Our rates are low. (If they take over) our water will be directed to other areas.”
Democrats running for Town Board this fall had held a press conference outside the water district’s headquarters on Pulaski Street the day prior to the forum, blasting the town’s antagonistic stance toward the Suffolk County Water Authority.
Riverhead’s water district “is the victim of decades-long policies of deferral of maintenance,” said Town Board candidate Juan Miceli-Martinez, who has long worked in the local wine industry, speaking in front of the town’s iconic tin man water tower. “The Route 58 water tower could have been rehabbed in 2020 for $2 million. Now it will cost $3 million. That’s unfortunate at best, and it’s hamstrung our ability to deliver clean water to Calverton and Manorville.”
Mr. Miceli-Martinez described the the town’s antagonism toward the Suffolk County Water Authority, and ongoing litigation with the New York Department of Environmental Conservation as a “multi-agency, multi-directional food fight,” decrying it as a “defer, delay and litigate” policy.
His running mate, former Riverhead Police Detective Evelyn Hobson-Womack, said “Riverhead needs clean, sustainable water, not another forum. We need active service, not lip service. We don’t need another dog and pony show.
Both candidates said they believed town representatives should work with the Suffolk County Water Authority on the Calverton and Manorville projects, a sentiment that was echoed by Councilwoman Catherine Kent, who is running to unseat Ms. Aguiar as Town Supervisor, at the Sept. 22 forum.
“What is the fastest way to get water to people in Manorville?,” she said. “I certainly feel as though we could continue to try to work with the SCWA and Brookhaven to bring water to these people as quickly as possible.”
“I don’t know why we’re talking about the Suffolk County Water Authority. I don’t have a problem with the Suffolk County Water Authority,” said Frank Mancini, the water district superintendent.
New York State Assemblywoman Jodi Giglio, a Republican who had formerly been a Riverhead Councilwoman, chimed in with criticism of the Water Authority.
“SCWA has greater problems than the Riverhead Water District,” she said. “They’re raising your rates, with surcharges on top of it….they’re a public authority and they’re not held to the same standards as a water district.”
Members of the public, including Kelly McClinchy, Ellen Hoil and Phil Barbato, asked when people could reasonably expect to see the work done, whether the project needs DEC permits, and why the town is waiting for grant funding to pay for it.
“If a portion of the money necessary is provided to Riverhead, are you waiting for the rest of the money?” asked Ms. McClinchy. “How long does the permit process take?”
“We’re working through problems with the DEC,” said Mr. Mancini, adding that a recent project to bring public water to the Peconic River Sportsmen’s Club in Calverton took about eight months.
“What happens if you only get part of the money?” said Ms. Hoil.
Ms. Prudenti said the town would then look into New York State Environmental Facilities Corporation funding.
“We are moving like a locomotive train,” she said.
“But everything goes off track,” said Ms. Hoil, who is a Democratic candidate for town assessor this fall.
“There’s gotta be another financial way to go about this. Can’t we take a loan out or do some kind of creative financial movement here?” said Mr. Barbato.
“There simply is just not enough money around. Your problem is not unique to you,” said Mr. Mancini. “To dismiss the tremendous cost of this is doing a disservice for us to try to help you.”
“We cannot bond $9 million,” said Councilman Tim Hubbard. The taxpayers in town would burn down town hall.”
Some people in the crowd murmured that that wouldn’t be a bad idea.
“I live in Jamesport. I’m already on public water. I’m willing to pay for it,” said Mr. Barbato.
While the Grumman site at EPCAL, formerly owned by the U.S. Navy, is the likely source of the pollution in Manorville and Calverton, the town has been unable to date to get the Navy to pay to hook residents there up to public water.
Mr. Mancini handed out a chart explaining why hooking this handful of homeowners up to public water has proved to be such a drawn-out process. The bottom line: They are by far the most costly public water hookups on Long Island due to how much supply pipe must be installed in order to reach the homes, which are spread out over a densely wooded area of the Central Pine Barrens.
“These few remaining homes are the most expensive in all of Suffolk County. This is a tremendous challenge,” said Mr. Mancini. “The distance is quite far, and it’s sparsely populated.
These public water hookups would cost more than $35,000 on average, according to his chart, while the cost of hooking up the remaining people not on public water in other towns is far lower — the cost in Southold or East Hampton is around $11,000, while the cost in Brookhaven averages $6,000.
Mr. Mancini urged residents to join the Navy’s Restoration Advisory Board (RAB), a board comprised of community members who have a stake in the environmental issues that could have been caused by the Navy’s use of the property.
“If you believe the Navy has impacted your private well, join the RAB and pressure them,” he said. “I was disappointed that more local residents didn’t join. If you feel they contaminated your well, you need to build your case.”
“We don’t know for sure that the contaminants in our wells came from the Navy,” said Ms. McClinchy. “The Navy has not proven to us the contaminants have been coming from their site. What is the town board doing to make sure no further contamination happens at that site and affects us? Salvaged cars are being stored on the runway for a second time. Cars in transport have already caught on fire. There are already oil pools on the runway. They’re being moved by payloaders and there’s great potential for all the fluids in the cars to leak out. We can’t take any more from this site.”
Ms. Prudenti said the DE C has been out to the site to inspect the cars.
Toqui Terchun of Calverton urged the board that any money the town gets from leasing the runway to store damaged cars be earmarked to help the people of Calverton.
Jason Hime of the Suffolk County Department of Health Services added that the health department is testing private wells near EPCAL free of charge to see if they contain elevated PFOA/PFOS contamination. Residents can call 631.852.5810 to receive testing.
Resident Mark Masi told the board via Zoom that he was concerned that the Navy was using the federal standard of 70 parts per trillion of perfluorinated compounds as the drinking water limit, while New York State’s standard is 10 parts per trillion.
Citizens Campaign for the Environment Executive Director Adrienne Esposito piped up that Nw York has agreed to enforce the state standard on federally owned property.
“I was extremely happy to hear that,” she said, “and thank you to the Suffolk County Health Department for saying we will come in and test your wells for free.”
“Riverhead is a smaller district, and it would be much harder for them to do (this project),” she chimed in on the the debate over the Suffolk County Water Authority. “The public, I don’t think they care who gives them clean water. They want it as quickly as possible.”
“If they say they can start tomorrow, we’ll say, ‘ok, we can do it,” said Ms. Aguiar, in an apparent about-face from her earlier comments. Her companions on the board then agreed.
“By all means, if Suffolk County comes tomorrow with a check, I support to go that route,” said Mr. Rothwell.
“If that’s the case, we’ll be unanimous. We’ll all vote that way,” said Councilman Frank Beyrodt. “But we want to do this for ourselves.” — BHY