You may have seen the signs posted in Larchmont, Mamaroneck and other towns imploring people to “Demand Safe Water.”
This is not the work of an environmental group, but of the Westchester Joint Water Works (WJWW) which is fighting several groups of residents over a proposed land swap in order to build a filtration plant.
New York State ordered the water agency to build a filtration plant in 2003, as did the federal government in 2019, to serve an estimated 100,000 Westchester residents in Harrison, Mamaroneck, Rye and New Rochelle – about 10% of the county’s population. It would filter water from the Rye Lake water source and would be completed by 2027.
The $138 million plant is needed, in part, to control levels of byproducts from disinfection (such as chlorine) such as ” Haloacetic Acids (HAA5s) that have been found at elevated levels in WJWW’s water distribution system,” according to the utility’s “Support the Swap” campaign website. These compounds can potentially increase risks of cancer, liver disease and kidney disease, according to the project’s final environmental impact statement.
But in order to build the plant, WJWW now wants to swap 13 acres of land it owns in Harrison along the Westchester County Airport’s southern boundary, where it first considered building the plant during the 2000s, with a nearby wooded parcel of the same size on Purchase Street in Harrison, owned by the County and adjoining the airport.
The water agency is racing against time for approval to build the 37-foot high industrial complex as a reported $100 million in government fines accrue, at a rate of $13,750 per day. The land swap would have to be approved by the Westchester Board of Legislators.
There is much opposition to the plan. The land is next to a nearly 300-year old Quaker Congregation on Purchase Street, whose members say it would encroach on their historic 4-acre property, and have filed suit in State Supreme Court demanding more study. The suit alleges that the WJWW has not met the requirements necessary to justify building on County-owned property within the Kensico Reservoir watershed.
In a letter to County Executive George Latimer, Purchase resident David De Lott writes, “There is a disturbing lack of transparency and logic as to why WJWW would be looking to swap its own land with the county in order to build in a less-desirable location with respect to environmental impact, environmental risks (9 million NYC residents who rely on the safety and purity of the Kensico Watershed for its water,) noise, traffic and historical preservation”
WJWW Manager Paul Kutzky says a New York City DEP “confirm(s) that the construction of the Filtration Plant at the County Parcel will not harm the Kensico Reservoir, and will have no stormwater impact on downstream properties.”
The Purchase Environmental Protection Association (PEPA) has circulated a petition and written to the County urging the Legislative body to vote no. And many residents say the wooded area is their only buffer from the noise at the airport.
But a spokeswoman for WJWW says direct traffic access to Purchase Street is more favorable. The site WJWW owns, on the other hand, which was vetted and deforested for this project years ago, has access to Purchase Street only through a residential side street. The site is also closer to the reservoir.
“This is a project that will make sure clean drinking water for 100,000 Westchester residents for generations,” says Mamaroneck Mayor Tom Murphy, who is Chairman of the Board of Trustees of WJWW. “It will also save Harrison, Town of Mamaroneck and the Village of Mamaroneck from crippling fines.”
Furthermore, Murphy says, “There will be no disturbing of the Quakers or other historic properties, those are red herrings.”
Jane Olsen, who serves as Trustee for the Purchase Friends (Quaker) Meeting, writes, “What is at stake here is further transformation of a lovely, wooded residential area into something that more closely resembles the environs of LaGuardia or JFK airports. The forest next to our meeting house is one of the last natural buffers between the residential areas and the activity of the airport.”
Says Mayor Murphy, building the plant and getting the swap approved is a priority. “Weigh that against the wants of … some extremely well-heeled neighbors and doing the right thing should be an easy decision.”