October 3, 2013

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Rockland residents voice opposition to desalination at PSC hearings

HAVERSTRAW – Two Public Service Commission hearings on the continued need for United Water New York’s proposed desalination plant drew large numbers of residents with strong reservations about the plan and its environmental and financial impact.

The hearings, on Tuesday and Wednesday, featured representatives from both the PSC and United Water. Most of the sessions consisted of PSC reps hearing and taking notes on statements from public officials, residents, activists and other local leaders and residents. The meetings’ atmosphere was often heated and highly skeptical of United Water’s claims.

`The plant would draw water from Haverstraw Bay and make it potable by reducing its salt content and filtering out other contaminants to meet growing water needs in Rockland County.

However, activists have raised questions over the need for a new water source and argued more optimal results could be achieved with conservation of current resources.

Concerns have also been voiced over the safety of treated water, which environmental advocates have claimed may still contain PCBs, radioactive isotopes from Indian Point and other contaminants from industrial centers further upstream.  Other concerns raised included the affordability of proposed rate increases, impacts on the attractiveness of Rockland County to prospective residents and businesses and separate environmental issues in United Water’s history.

At the hearings, both county and state legislators made appearances at both meetings to express opposition to the project. County Legislator Alden Wolfe emphasized recent and past studies showed Rockland’s groundwater supply is healthier than expected and existing resources were adequate, issues United Water has not taken into consideration. “Put simply, we can do better with what we already have,” Wolfe said.

Legislator Joseph Meyers brought up a need to evaluate community demand, mentioning that most population growth is coming from Ramapo’s Orthodox Jewish community, most of whom minimize use of water through multifamily housing.

Meyers also argued that considering issues such as lawsuits fighting overdevelopment and the FBI investigation of operations at Ramapo Town Hall, shifting conditions in the town could also limit overdevelopment and drive down water needs.

“Looking at needs and community focus I mention it only because when we look at need, we need to look at the needs and the focus of those communities,” Meyers said.

Stony Point Town Supervisor Geoffrey Finn attended to represent his town’s board, which opposes the plant. Though he stated ratables which may be produced by such a project are desirable, the plant was not worth the potential health and environmental risks.

“I’m begging you on behalf of the taxpayers of Stony Point and Rockland County to listen to the people,” Finn said.  “There’s not a person in this room who wants this.”

County and town opposition has been so strong that the county joined Rockland’s five towns, a number of villages and the Nyack School District to form the Municipal Consortium, a coalition arguing against the plant on behalf of local governing bodies.

Municipal Consortium Attorney Daniel Duthie, who was representing the Town of Ramapo, argued that though growth is expected to accelerate, water supplies are projected to see a surplus.

“What we’re looking at an average surplus for 2017 of 5 million gallons per day,” Duthie said.

Though county and state officials have been driving hard to prevent the approval of the plant, the strongest opposition came from local environmental groups such as Riverkeeper and the Rockland Water Coalition, which was formed from a collection of smaller organizations to fight desalination.

Riverkeeper President and Coalition member Paul Gallay called desalination a “draconian” solution to supply problems due to its price figure and requested the PSC hold collaborative talks with United Water on alternatives. “Sit down together and conference this out,” Gallay urged.

However, opposition against the plant is not universal. Both Haverstraw Town Supervisor Howard Phillips and Rockland Business Association President Hector May have expressed support for the plant, arguing growth in the county would eventually require additional sources of water and that it would bring ratables to the town.

Other supporters of the plan include State Senator William Larkin, the Mid-Hudson Region of the NAACP and various construction and trade groups.

United Water itself continues to maintain that continued increases in construction, as well as upcoming and long-term projects such as the Bloomberg data center in Orangeburg, the new Tappan Zee Bridge and potential development for the grounds of the former Letchworth Village are likely to surpass the small supply drop seen during the recession.

“Our assessment in the report is that the need for additional water supply still continues, and we see this need continuing as a result of forecasted population projections from 2010 to 2035,” Project Manager Sameet Master explained.

Master also added that job growth is expected to rise significantly in the coming years, necessitating more water to support workers and business development.

Orangetown’s town board initially supported United Water and opposed the PSC hearings, but reversed its position with a narrow 3-2 informal vote in May after facing overwhelming public opposition.

“I think I can say that I’m representing the majority of the people in Orangetown when I say we do not believe there is sufficient need for a new supply to justify this project,” Orangetown Supervisor Andy Stewart said.

Prior to the hearing, the plan was under review by the state Department of Environmental Conservation. Following a formal request by the county legislature to reopen 2007 proceedings and in spite of United Water’s opposition, the question of need is now under re-evaluation by the PSC.

The PSC is expected to evaluate the public comments together with United Water’s August report on continued water need. A determination on continuing need is expected to be issued as early as October 18.

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