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HomeNewsExclusive: Why Does Westchester Water Works Want to Swap its Land?

Exclusive: Why Does Westchester Water Works Want to Swap its Land?

WJWW mail flyer

Exclusive to theLoop

They’ve been arriving by e-mail and postal mail: appeals by the Westchester Joint Water Works (WJWW) imploring, “The Time to Act is Now.” In the Town of Mamaroneck, the flyers, which appear to come from Town government, read “Demand Safe Water.”

WJWW needs to build a water filtration plant. The issue is where. The stakes are high.

The advertising campaign is in response to mounting opposition to WJWW’s plan to “swap” a 13-acre parcel of land in Harrison, where it has already spent millions to clear acres of trees and begin construction, for a different parcel owned by Westchester County on Purchase Street adjoining the airport.  (map below)

Who Benefits?

New York State ordered the agency to build a filtration plant in 2003, as did the federal government in 2019, to filter water from its Rye Lake source at the Kensico Reservoir, which primarily serves the Town of Harrison, not the whole WJWW service area.

“They cannot transmit the water from Purchase all the way to the Town of Mamaroneck and the Village of Larchmont.” according to Richard Ruge, a former WJWW General Superintendent.  The utility’s other source of supply, Ruge says, is from New York City’s Delaware Aqueduct which does not need to be filtered and primarily serves the Town and Village of Mamaroneck.  Therefore, he argues, while Larchmont and Mamaroneck will bear part of the cost of the plant, its residents will not directly benefit. “Large areas of the WJWW  service area can’t get the water.”

The current projected cost of the swap site water filtration plant is $138 million. $4.8 million was already spent on the original filter plant project, not including the land acquisition, according to WJWW Paul Kutzy, Manager of WJWW.

Until a vote on whether to authorize the land swap by the Westchester Board of Legislators, which is expected in 2024, government fines are accruing at a rate of $13,750 per day.

But critics, from engineers to the trustees of an historic Quaker Meeting House in Purchase, cite more reasons not to build on the swap property, including the presence of toxic chemicals, and speculation the new site was chosen to benefit Westchester County Airport and Million Air, a private aviation company, so it will have adequate fire-fighting capabilities.

Toxic Chemicals

Ground monitoring reports on the Westchester County Airport website show significant contamination by PFAS, known as “forever chemicals,” a class of manmade chemicals the NRDC says are toxic at even very low levels.

“The “new” site lies “inside a watershed less than 1000 feet from Kensico Reservoir,” says Robert Fleisher of the Coalition to Prevent Westchester Airport Expansion.

Jane Olsen, who serves as Trustee for the Purchase Friends Quaker Meeting adjacent to the swap property, says “Our biggest concern right now is that the proposed site … is almost certainly contaminated with PFAS.  Even their engineers have stated that, because of this contamination, any soil or ground water disturbed during construction will have to be disposed of off-site, meaning they will have to pay to have another location accept the contaminated soil and water.  How is this risk to the Kensico Reservoir one that is even contemplated, while the other site they own is not in the Kensico watershed?”

“PFAS is not expected to be an issue,” Kutzy says.  “However, due to the known presence of PFAS throughout the overall airport property, the filtration plant project plan will include requirements for the treatment and removal of any groundwater that is encountered during excavation and construction at the project site. “

The excavated material, according to a Draft Environmental Impact Statement, totals 59,000 tons.

“The cost to WJWW to remediate this during construction could be enormous, yet they have not included this cost in the construction estimate,” Ruge says.

Westchester Airport and Million Air  

The speculation about the airport and Million Air stems from design documents a Coalition of groups opposed to the plan acquired under Freedom of Information Laws, which they say show the utility will be filtering 10 million more gallons of water a day than what was on the original design.

Olsen told a recent Westchester Board of Legislators (BOL) meeting that the design documents show the plans were upsized to handle 40 million gallons of water a day (mgd) from 30 mgd.

“It is not at all clear why they need this massive increase in capacity,” Olsen says, “but we are increasingly convinced that it has to do with the needs of the airport, which they do not acknowledge.”

Ruge says he filed a FOIL request that shows Million Air was built without adequate fire protection.

“Million Air is short 10 mgd to fight fires and that’s critical,” Ruge told the BOL.  “I can only guess Million Air needed the water, the airport needed water and WJWW wanted to find easier solution and the County said, ‘OK we’ll help you out.'”

When asked about this, Kutzy said, “The simple answer is not true … WJWW water storage tanks are what provide for fire protection needs throughout the WJWW water distribution system which includes the Westchester County Airport.” He added, “The design of the filtration plant has not changed.”

Million Air’s Chief Brand Officer Allison Woolsey tells the Loop neither the company’s general contractor nor COO “have heard anything about this.”

Ann Gold, Executive Director of the Purchase Environmental Protection Association (PEPA) says, “Repeatedly we have been told by WJWW that they can’t go back to the original site because it would take too much time and cost too much money. It is akin to the Titanic arguing that it had no choice but to hit an iceberg. But unlike the Titanic, Gold said, “there’s still time to prevent an environmental and visual catastrophe.”

The Board of Legislators is expected to vote on the matter next year.

 

 

Polly Kreisman
Polly Kreisman
Polly Kreisman founded and began publishing theLoop in 2007. She is a 15-time Emmy Award winning former television reporter. In New York she worked at WPIX TV, WWOR TV, WNBC TV and NY1. She covered politics on Capitol Hill in Washington DC earlier in her career. For the past several years she has pursued professional acting roles in film, television and commercials. She is the mother of twins and two baldly behaved dogs, and lives in Larchmont.

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Richard Ruge
Richard Ruge
December 30, 2023 3:49 PM

On November 6, 2019 a meeting was held with the Westchester County Department of Public Works and Transportation, the County’s engineers and others to address water system improvements at the Airport. Item 14 of the minutes states, “Million Air is the only hangar that is equipped with a fire suppression system but does not have a dedicated cistern.” A subsequent meeting held on August 4, 2020 regarding water pressure issues at the Airport states that the “…..worst case flow demands at WCA, which is Million Air Hangar.” On May 20, 2021 the County entered into an agreement with WJWW to pay WJWW an amount up to $861,000 for pumping system upgrades to provide the necessary fire protection for the Airport, primarily Million Air, since they do not have a dedicated cistern. This is not speculation or conspiracy theories, but facts. Instead of deflecting the issue, the County should determine why Million Air was allowed to open and operate with an inadequate fire suppression system. 

The PFAS issue is more complicated then a quick “investigate and remediate” response. The County’s maps of PFAS contamination shows PFAS located along Tower Road which is to the South of the land the County wants to swap with the WJWW. These maps also show the groundwater flowing to the North, or directly towards the swap parcel. Has the County taken soil and groundwater samples from the swap property? If they have, what are the results?

During the construction of a water main on Airport property, the County had to remediate the PFAS contaminated groundwater and truck off-site the contaminated soil. Will the County make these costs available to the public without the need for a FOIL request?

It seems that the County wants to swap a potentially contaminated parcel of land with the WJWW for land probably not contaminated. Is that fair to the WJWW ratepayers? 

County Exec GEORGE LATIMER - Westchester
County Exec GEORGE LATIMER - Westchester
December 30, 2023 5:50 PM
Reply to  Richard Ruge

The County does not “want” to do the swap.. it is before us at the request of the WJWW. The policy of the County is not set by administrative staff action… it is the province of the BoL and the CE.

The Board of Legislators has yet to determine if it supports or denied the swap, and I will act after their action. Every other comment is simply speculation by those who support or oppose the swap during this long multi-year contentious discussion. Advocates on either side should continue to marshal their arguments on the merits. Everything else is not relevant to the decision.

Richard Ruge
Richard Ruge
December 30, 2023 6:07 PM

I believe PFAS contaminated water and soil is relevant. As is the cost to mitigate the pollution, especially since the ratepayers of the WJWW will be on the hook for cleaning up the contamination on County land. The County should do the right thing and deny the swap and take responsibility for the probable contamination on their land.

The County has paid for remediation of PFAS and should let WJWW, and its ratepayers, know what they spent. This will help WJWW budget for this unnecessary expense caused by the land swap.

County Exec GEORGE LATIMER - Westchester
County Exec GEORGE LATIMER - Westchester
December 29, 2023 12:10 PM

The County has no vested interest in assisting Million Air… we are currently in litigation with them in court. Speculation along those lines are untrue, consistent with the conspiracy theories often crafted to influence the way the public thinks about an issue. During my six year term as CE we have spent money to investigate and remediate PFAS, stopped all Airport privatization efforts and done nothing to expand the size or scope of the Airport.

George Latimer

• C O M M U N I T Y • C A L E N D A R •

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