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HomeLetter to the EditorTo the Editor: WJWW Land Swap is a Risk We Don't Have...

To the Editor: WJWW Land Swap is a Risk We Don’t Have to Take

To the Editor:

Quakers take seriously our responsibility to be stewards of our natural resources. We oppose Westchester Joint Waterworks (WJWW) building a massive industrial water filtration plant on the property adjacent to our Meeting House on Purchase Street, within 800 feet of the Kensico Reservoir, threatening the drinking water of more than 9 million people. We support the construction of a filtration plant, but not in that location. WJWW should build their plant on their own property, outside of the Kensico watershed.

The Problem of PFAS and Potential Risks to the Kensico Reservoir
In March, 2023, the EPA proposed new legal thresholds for “safe” levels of PFAS in drinking water (4 parts per trillion, as compared with the previously accepted 70 parts per trillion). This is an environmental crisis across the country. In Minnesota, communities along the “plume” from 3M’s plants are seeing skyrocketing rates of childhood cancers, and here in Rockland County the aquifer is contaminated with PFAS from Stewart Airport and other sources.

The proposed “swap” property is part of a PFAS brownfield at Westchester County Airport, and the run-off from it flows downhill directly into the reservoir. In the DEIS Environmental Site Assessment for the “swap” location, Hazen and Sawyer, the WJWW engineers, noted that test wells on Airport property are contaminated with PFAS, heavy metals, and other toxins. Recognizing the risk from these poisons,

“Hazen recommends … during the construction phase, all excavated materials to be disposed off-site, and groundwater encountered on the Subject Property should either be tested or assumed to be contaminated and then handled or disposed of in accordance with all applicable regulations and guidelines.”

WJWW also acknowledges that the filtration plant will not have the capacity to remove PFAS, if it becomes a problem in the Rye Lake/Kensico Reservoir, nor can the facility be expanded or modified to do so.

Why would we take this risk if we don’t have to?

In June, 2022, the NYS Watershed Inspector General stated, with regard to placing the proposed plant on Purchase Street, “Development adjacent to the Kensico Reservoir, such as the Project, is expected to increase discharges of polluted stormwater….”

As lead agency on the project, the WJWW makes their own analysis of the environmental risks, and they also determine whether that analysis is sufficient. In October, 2022, a letter from the environmental assessment (SEQRA) process supervisor at the NYC DEP stated:

“The FEIS [Final Environmental Impact Statement] discussion of why the filtration plant was not located at the Alternative 2 location is inadequate. Of course, each alternative site will result in impacts, however, deciding to locate the project within the New York City Watershed should warrant a more detailed, quantified justification. There does not appear to be a compelling reason why the filtration plant could not be located outside of the NYC watershed.”

If they construct the plant on the proposed site, to the planned depth of 35 feet, they intend to remove 50,000 cubic yards of soil and an as yet unknown quantity of ground water, which will have to go to some location which accepts contaminated materials. Also, WJWW recently approved an additional $850,000 to be paid to Hazen and Sawyer to update their foundation design, since they discovered that the unexpectedly high water table poses a threat to the stability of the plant’s foundation. How can they ensure that they can contain the migration of toxins during this massive disturbance of the site?

Based on these concerning facts, we agree with the DEP statement that there is no compelling reason to choose this site for the plant.

Where is the Greatest “Conflict with Residential Land Use”?
The WJWW claims that in choosing not to build on the site they already own, “the
key impediment was the perceived conflict with surrounding residential land use.” Anyone who walks these two sites, or looks at aerial maps, can see that the Purchase Street site is much more densely residential than the site they already own, which is bordered on 3 sides by a golf course, the Airport, and undeveloped residentially zoned land. By contrast, virtually all the properties on Purchase Street in the vicinity of the proposed construction site are residential, with occupied houses. The “swap” site itself was zoned residential, until it was acquired by the airport in the 1940s. The only reason that parcel is not zoned residential is that it is part of the Airport.

There is one residence on Purchase Street that is almost fully engulfed by the “swap” site, while only a stone wall separates our Quaker meeting house (which is also a residence) and playground from it. Three houses on Purchase Street will be directly across from the plant, as will the access to all the houses on Kempner Lane. Houses all along that section of Purchase Street will be massively impacted by the proposed 3-year (minimum) construction time, and WJWW has noted that for at least three months, there will be 70 trucks per day entering and leaving the property from 7:30AM to 8:30PM. How can this be compared to the existing WJWW property, where massive amounts of soil do NOT have to be removed, and which is tucked away at a significant distance from the residential thoroughfare of Purchase Street?

There also is no legal obstacle to WJWW obtaining a permit on the property they already own. They were already granted a “special exception use permit” in 2005 for construction of a filtration plant on that site. The Harrison Planning Board stated that the granting of the permit “[w]ill not prevent or substantially impair either the reasonable and orderly use or the reasonable and orderly development of other properties in the neighborhood. The Project is not inconsistent with the Master Plan.”

How can we justify taking this enormous risk to the Kensico Reservoir because the WJWW has stated there is a “conflict with residential land use” on the site they already own? Are the County, the WJWW, and the Legislature going to be bullied by a single wealthy neighbor who has threatened legal action? Will they allow one NIMBY complaint to force them to risk the health of tens of millions of current and future New Yorkers?

Does the WJWW Proposed Plant Create an Opportunity for Airport Expansion?

This proposed plant would be built on an undeveloped parcel of airport land occupied by a mature forest. That open space currently buffers the community, providing valuable noise protection to the neighborhood and natural filtration of run-off from the airport. It is for this reason that the property was identified in 2007 by the County as a “Water Quality Buffer Area,” and is still legally classified by the County and by NY State as a “Critical Environmental Area,” insulating the surrounding community from toxic levels of airport noise. Also, the proposed plant capacity will eventually be double the 20 million gallons/day design from 2008 (with 30mgd now planned, and 40mgd expansion built in).

No quantified justification for that enormously increased capacity has been provided. An extra 20 mgd serves between 100,000 and 200,000 additional customers. Who is this water for? They have claimed that at some future time they would supply their entire service area from Rye Lake, but they have offered no actual plans for creating the infrastructure to do so. However, as Tom Murphy stated repeatedly, they do have a plan to provide water to the Airport. As early as April 25, 2017, WJWW recorded in their monthly meeting minutes that they were in discussions with the County about siting their filtration plant at the airport, and providing the airport with additional water. Why should WJWW customers pay for a plant to provide water to the airport?

A Decision for Future Generations
Will this be regarded by future generations as a turning point, where we could have chosen to protect our drinking water, and we didn’t? The huge long-term environmental risks of building on the “swap” site, as well as the disproportionate community impact of construction there, must lead the legislators to vote against the “swap.” The WJWW was given ultimatums to filter their water from Rye Lake by the EPA, the NYSDOH, the NYS Attorney General, and the NYS Superior and Appellate Courts in 1991, 1993, 1999, 2004, 2005, and 2019. They fought in court, they proposed alternatives, they dragged their feet, and for many years they simply refused to address the problem. For 10 years (2009-2019) they did nothing about it. It is unconscionable that the WJWW avoided solving the problem for years, and then spent over $8 million on plans to build on land they did not own. Now they are holding a gun to all our heads, saying there is no choice. There is a choice! Tell Westchester County to protect the reservoir and have WJWW build the plant where they originally intended.

Very sincerely yours,

Jane Nicklin Olsen & Austa Devlin
Members of Purchase Friends Meeting




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Rich Ruge
Rich Ruge
March 22, 2024 4:05 PM

The County of Westchester is washing their hands of possible PFAS contamination at the site. The cleanup costs, which may be in the millions, will be passed on the the customers of WJWW.

David De Lott
David De Lott
March 22, 2024 3:52 PM

Compelling and factual. No need to jeopardize the drinking water for 9 million people when WJWW already owns a perfectly good piece of land to build on outside of the Kensico reservoir.

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