OPED: NY American Water Must Abandon Costly Changes to Treatment Plant Project

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Over the summer, New York State implemented stringent new regulations that lowered the acceptable amount of perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) in potable water. To ensure compliance with this statewide mandate, New York American Water began the process of building a water treatment facility at their Roslyn Drive property in Glen Head.

This is a serious issue that we have a legal and moral obligation to address. However, it must not be used as a cover for wasteful backroom deals that provide little benefit to ratepayers.

Like water providers throughout the state, New York American Water (NYAW) is on the front lines of efforts to remove this dangerous carcinogen from our water supply. The federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has warned that exposure to PFOS over certain levels can result in serious health problems, such as developmental effects to fetuses during pregnancy or to breast-fed infants; cancer; and negative impacts upon the liver, thyroid and immune system.

Although I have not agreed with or liked many of the things that NYAW has done in our community, when they reached out in January on this issue, I felt compelled to be of assistance.

As part of the approval process with the Town of Oyster Bay’s Zoning Board of Appeals, New York American Water was advised to conduct public outreach. To ensure that immediately impacted residents would have an opportunity to review plans for this $3.5-million facility and pose questions to NYAW officials, I agreed to host a public meeting at the North Shore High School on March 16. However, as the emerging COVID-19 pandemic began to wreak havoc upon our region, the public forum was postponed.

Now, let’s fast-forward three months to mid-June, when I received a call from New York American Water. I believed they were finally ready to re-schedule the meeting and were calling to coordinate with me.

Instead, I was floored to learn on that call that the Zoning Board had already approved NYAW’s zoning application – and the project they approved was $1 million more than when the proposal was last presented to me. It turns out that, under cover of the pandemic, NYAW’s original plan to use landscaping to conceal the treatment facility’s four tanks from public view – a common, economical practice successfully utilized by countless water districts – was dramatically altered without the input of elected officials, rate payers or key stakeholders.

Instead, in my opinion NYAW went behind our backs to meet with a ‘civic group’ and replaced landscaping with a totally unnecessary $1 million ‘building.’ The ‘civic group’ they met with does not have any fiduciary responsibilities to their constituents, has no mandate to speak for the community, and in my view its members do not live in close proximity to the site of the treatment facility. I believe the leader of this group was likely not aware of the fiscal impact of the design changes he advocated for.

I made it clear that I was furious about their lack of transparency. To make matters even worse, because NYAW is a private company, it is not eligible for any state funding. As I calculate it, if the cost is kept to the Sea Cliff Water District, their customers will be stuck with an additional bill of approximately $200 per ratepayer.

At a time when many of our constituents are grappling with COVID-19 related financial hardships above and beyond what I regard as their already exorbitant water bills, we have an ethical responsibility to ensure that this essential project is completed in a transparent, collaborative manner that yields the maximum public health and quality of life benefits at the lowest cost possible.

 

I spoke to Oyster Bay Supervisor Joseph Saladino, who was also concerned about the costs. He said that if New York American Water re-submitted its application without the costly $1-million structure, the Town of Oyster Bay would do what it could to have a new hearing as soon as possible.

 

Not surprisingly, my pleas to NYAW to make this right have been ignored thus far. In my opinion, New York American Water’s track record clearly illustrates that, in its dealings with this community, it will not do the right thing without being publicly – and loudly – shamed.

There is still time for New York American Water to change course, though. Call New York American Water at 1-877-426-6999 to respectfully – but emphatically – make your opposition to this million-dollar boondoggle known and tell them that they have an obligation to serve all their ratepayers – not just the select few.

 

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