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