As a potentially multi-million dollar federal lawsuit against Westchester over compliance with the Clean Water Act moves ahead, the county administration is asking the Board of Legislators to bond nearly $10 million for a project they argue will bring the county into compliance.
But legislators are questioning the decision by the administration to move ahead without getting assurances from the Environmental Protection Agency that it will resolve the lawsuit, which could lead to many millions in fines against the county. Westchester’s Water District 1 is not in compliance with a federal rule requiring ultraviolet treatment of drinking water that went into effect in April 2012. The ultraviolet light kills cryptosporidium and is required for water that comes from surface sources such as reservoirs.
If the work is done but the EPA rejects the solution, that will mean nearly $10 million down the drain and could leave the county with an additional bill for a $100 million project that would bring UV treated water to District 1 and other parts of the county.
Ned McCormack, a spokesman for County Executive Rob Astorino, said the plan will bring the county into compliance by putting treatment in place.
“Our position is we’re moving forward to get into compliance,” he said.
Tom Lauro, the commissioner of the Department of Environmental Facilities, told a legislative committee this week that it would be arbitrary for the EPA to deny approval of the county’s preferred plan because it has approved similar plans elsewhere. But he acknowledged that the EPA’s position is that the county should build both the county’s preferred plan and the $100 million plan, one to cover the short term and one the long term.
“That’s where it broke down,” he said of discussions with the EPA and the Department of Justice.
But legislators said they want to be sure the county is on the right track.
“We ought to know something from the EPA before we expend taxpayer money,” said Legislator Ben Boykin, D-White Plains.
Water District 1 includes White Plains, Scarsdale, Yonkers and Mount Vernon. White Plains and Scarsdale are not currently getting UV treated water.
The county originally planned to tap into UV treated water from New York City’s treatment plant in Mount Pleasant. But the plan—which would supply the water to District 1, county District 3 at Grasslands and Westchester Community College, Westchester Joint Water Works (which also sells water to United Water) and the villages of Tarrytown, Sleepy Hollow and Briarcliff—would cost an estimated $100 million, with the cost split between the users.
More than a year ago, the county developed an alternative plan to take water from a connection below the plant and pipe it to the northern sections of the water district. But concerns about a drop in water pressure for other users prompted them to modify the plan to include two small UV treatment facilities at pumping stations at the north end of the district. That doubled the cost from about $4.7 million to nearly $10 million.
The Board of Legislators has been asked to approve bonding for the alternate plan and another $9.2 million for a distribution chamber that would be needed for the larger project. McCormack said the distribution chamber is also needed for the river villages and for Water District 3, regardless of whether the $100 million plan is adopted.
The legislation for the distribution chamber still includes payments from Westchester Joint Water Works despite the fact that the agency, not part of the county, has not been included in the discussions about where the county is going.
“We’re not kept in the loop and we have not been kept in the loop for along time,” said Anthony Conetta, the manager of the water works. In the absence of the $100 million plan, the Water Works is working on a its own alternative, including managing peak water usage.
The fines from the lawsuit could reach $37,500 for each day in violation.