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Workshop:Old report sheds new light
on how PIP and DEC have not done due diligence
in cleaning up parkway pollution
Anne Phyllis Pinzow

Anne Phyllis Pinzow is a script writer who makes her main living as a newspaper reporter and editor.  

To the more than 50 residents crowding into Greenbush Auditorium on January 31, for the public hearing on the performance standard review before the Zoning Board of Appeals for United Water's proposed water stripping towers in Tappan, it may have seemed frustrating at best when told that most of what they had to say was not on point.

Their concerns have centered on the source of pollution engendering the need for the tower, what pollution will be generated by the tower, the affects of that pollution and the tower on their lives and property and the governmental approval process.

Frustration also builds as one set of officials and scientists say one thing while another set of officials and scientists say the opposite.

However, much has been going on behind the scenes in response to residents' questions and concerns.

Source of pollution and effectiveness of previous cleanups:

Residents, and local officials have been pointing fingers at the Palisades Interstate Park Commission (PIPC) and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYDEC) for not exercising due diligence in cleaning up an 18 year old water pollution problem originating from a gasoline leak at the service station at exit five on the PIP.

Yet John Hall acting Executive Director of the PIP said in a phone interview that they've done all they can concerning the original leak and water pollution.

Besides removing the leaking tank and surrounding soil, Hall said a water stripping tower put up by the PIP in 1990 to remove the contaminants from the aquifer worked as it was supposed to until 1999. By that time it had remediated ground water in the area of harmful levels of pollutants.

The pollutants found in the underground plume included such volatile organic compounds (VOCs) as MTBE (methyl tertiary-butyl ether), Benzene, Toluene, Xylenes and Ethyl benzenes. Unfortunately, the plume of contaminants had already traveled underground to property owned by United Water and subsequently got into two of the three wells pumping drinking water in Tappan, numbers eight and eleven. As soon as the pollution was verified, the wells were shut down.

However, a report in PIP offices, seen by Ron Delo, director of Orangetown Environmental Engineer and Management shows that Hall's statement is only true as far as it goes.

Delo said the report commissioned from Malcolm Pirnie, Inc. states that the water stripper put in by the PIP was not adequate to the task at hand and so while it did work, it was incapable of cleaning out the amount of pollution present and so was eventually shut down.

Delo said the recent report showed that monitoring of the pollution levels continued through 2003 showing that the pollution was still present in amounts of 2,400 parts per billion, far below the original 35,000 parts per billion, but also far above NYS trigger standards of 75 parts per billion.

The actual water well now shows about 6 parts per billion, due to dilution with more clean water coming into the well. However Delo said that the proposed United Water facility would be capable of removing toxic substances down to below measurable amounts.

There is a letter in the file to the Rockland County Health Department 2001 from another reviewer stating that documents at the PIPC showed that the PIPC had removed 55 pounds of hydrocarbon per 845 gallons of water petroleum product mix.  "The contaminate levels in those wells remain high and require further action" states the letter.

"It's not that they didn't do anything but all they did was monitor and take tests," said Delo.

Upon hearing this, Orangetown Councilman Denis O'Donnell asked for an independent study to be performed of the affects of the structure which United Water proposed to build.

After receiving preliminary findings from Dvirka and Bartilucci, Consulting Engineers, he reported to the council and public that the PIP water stripper had not been functioning and had failed to remove the pollutants. O'Donnell asked the town to have the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) oversee an investigation of the failure of the PIPC and the NYSDEC to properly remediate the problem.

Given that information Orangetown Supervisor Thom Kleiner said that letters from the town had gone out to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) asking for federal oversight, as well as the DEC and the PIP but no written response had been forthcoming. A meeting had been set up but was postponed to an undecided date.

Kleiner also spoke to Carol Ash, the newly minted NY State Park's Commissioner and former Executive Director of the PIPC but she also had little information at the time.

However, Kleiner said that given the presence of pollution at the United Water site, it wouldn't matter if the air strippers on the PIP were working or not.  They would still be needed at the Tappan well sites as the plume of pollution had moved there.

Hall said that given the more recent information the PIPC will work with the DEC and will intensify their testing efforts in the area of the service station.

O'Donnell told Our Town, "I don't know where Mr. Hall lives or his background but it's quite evident he's taken the easy way out just as his department has for the last number of years and what they think about doing their due diligence and what I consider doing due diligence (is different). There is to me a major remediation that has to be completed (at the PIPC site.)

The Dvirka and Bartilucci report and contaminants

According to the report on United Water's proposal, there seems to be three major areas not addressed; the issue of soil contamination, compounds that can't be cleaned out of the water and long term air pollution affects.

According to the EPA and Department of Health and Human Services websites, none of the chemicals named in the report are considered to be significant soil pollutants because of their volatility or solubility and that they leave the soil quickly either entering water or air as soon as exposed.

While the soil was affected at the PIPC site, there is no soil pollution at the United Water well site said Donald F. Distante, Manager, Engineering for United Water, who is also a Clarkstown resident. He also said that the water tower would not produce any soil pollution.

Robert DeGiorgio, Senior Project Director for Dvirka and Barilucci who did the town's commissioned analysis said that while the water does carry pollution from the direction of the PIP, the well is more than 400 feet deep and so the soil would not be affected for more than 30 to 40 feet from the water, far below the grade surface.

Also, reports by the PIPC and Malcolm Pirnie, Inc. state that the PIPC had removed the leaking tanks and the affected soil, but as stated above, the material had already entered the subterranean water stream and the plume moved.

As to the effectiveness of the United Water towers, one substance known as MTBE, (methyl tertiary butyl ether), which is allowed to exist in water to the amount of 10 (ug/L) according to New York State standards, presently exists at the slightly higher amount of 10.1 (ug/L) according to design results on the last page of the Dvirka and Bartilucci report. (The USEPA has not yet established standards but has classified the compound as a possible carcinogen.)

The affects of MTBE according to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, are largely unknown. However in testing animals with amounts very much higher than in gasoline and for prolonged periods of time, some ill effects have been noted.

Another pollutant, "Acetone and other highly soluble compounds can not be effectively treated by air stripping," was another line found in the report which has had residents on edge because, these chemicals are nearly impossible to remove.

Yet, Dennis Keleher of the H2M Group which was commissioned by United Water to design the system to clean the water said that these chemicals were only found in the monitoring wells which go down 50 feet.

They said the actual wells, from which water is pumped are 600 feet deep and that the harmful chemicals were not found in samples from there. However, if they were to show up, the wells would be shut down as unusable.

According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, acetone occurs naturally in plants, trees, volcanic gases, forest fires, and as a product of the breakdown of body fat. "Exposure to moderate-to-high amounts of acetone can irritate your eyes and respiratory system, and make you dizzy. Very high exposure may cause you to lose consciousness."

One long term problem which may be faced by United Water actually has been caused by residents' design objections. According to the report, in order for Benzene to be cleaned out of the water a higher tower would be needed than what had been approved. The report states that this could affect United Water's long term operating plan by forcing the closing of the wells.

According to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry of the United States Department of Health and Human Service, benzene is produced in the human body.  However "breathing very high levels of benzene can result in death, while high levels can cause drowsiness, dizziness, rapid heart rate, headaches, tremors, confusion, and unconsciousness."

According to United Water and the other reports made, as well as information drawn from state and federal agencies, residents should not be affected by the miniscule amounts of contaminants they'll be exposed to even in the long term.

However these materials will enter the atmosphere and eventually enter the stratosphere. Distante said that these were not the types of chemicals, hydrocarbons and chlorides, which contributed to the global warming problem and don't affect the ozone layer. DeGiorgio said he is not an expert on global warming and so he could not comment on it because he did not know.

Yet an independent scientist said that they could contribute to the global warming problem, if even in a small way.

Upon hearing of this concern over the weekend, Councilman O'Donnell told Director Delo to research the possibility of an air scrubbing filtration system being placed on top of the water strippers to contain the pollutants to eliminate this problem and alleviate residents' concerns. He told Our Town, "The technology is there. With so much emphasis today on global warming, anything we can do, no matter how small to do something about it, then it behooves us and United Water to do its part."

United Water's Proposal and Zoning

John Giardiello, director of the town's department of Building, Zoning, Planning Administration and Enforcement, when receiving United Water's project for review, ruled that United Water, and its predecessor, Spring Valley Water, has owned that land since 1931, and that the wells were on the land before the town had even initiated a zoning code in 1965. "It's a pre-existing condition," said Giardiello, and as such, whatever agreements and uses the water company had concerning the land, stand to this day. He does not consider the towers to require a use variance because what United Water plans to do is remediate the existing condition. "A use variance would be for a new use being put on the property."

United Water went before ACABOR (Architecture and Community Appearance Board of Review) and after resident pressure, altered the planned design from a 45 foot tower to two 25 foot towers.

It then went before the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) twice in January.  A review of the commissioned report was heard by the ZBA on February 5 and United Water will again go before them on February 7 for a performance standards review and final decision.

However, residents have questioned Giardiello's 'ruling,' that this is a pre-existing condition.

George Peters a Tappan resident and former chairman of the zoning board of Fort Lee, NJ said that building the water stripping towers constitutes a non-permitted use.

He said Giardiello had ruled that this is a public utility pump station and considered a conditional use in every residential zone in town (the property is zoned R-15 medium residential).

"What we're saying is that this is not a pump station. It's an industrial facility, a water treating plant." The United Water filings and application also state that this is a water treatment facility.

Peters contends that this makes it a non-permitted use and so United Water must go for a use variance, the requirements for which are more stringent than what is now being required.

After receiving a memorandum distributed by Deputy Town Attorney Kevin Mulhearn concerning the jurisdiction of the ZBA in this matter, Peters said it's his intention to file an appeal against Giardiello's decision that the proposal does not require a use variance.

However, Mulhearn's memorandum states the appeal must be filed within 60 days of the November 1, 2006 Giardiello decision except when a person can claim that they had not heard of the decision at that time.

Peters said he does not have abutting property and so had not received any notice of the proceedings.

According to the memorandum "The filing of such an appeal, moreover, shall, with limited exceptions, stay all proceedings in furtherance of the action appealed from."

Property values:

Peters said that aside from the issue of zoning, just the perception that the property will hold a waste water treatment facility will affect property values. Peters said he used the term waste water because this type of facility is found at waste water facilities, not well water pumping stations.

Dave Duran, another Tappan resident, joined with Peters in claiming that given the proximity of what is planned, the property would lose value upwards of $100,000.

"When the property was originally sold by Mrs. Eimer, it's the residents' contention (according to a deed in ACABOR records) that it was her intent that the property be preserved and as a condition of sale to have the property quietly enjoyed," said Duran.

Duran said that 25 years ago, just before the subdivisions were developed in the area, there was a small well house that provided no noise, emitted no fumes or VOCs and wasn't designed to purify water.

Duran, despite assurances from United Water and government officials that United Water property is not contaminated said he's lost faith with them all and said it's common sense that the land would be polluted.

"If the town required United Water to remediate the contaminated property and not allow any construction of any structure until they do so, I bet United Water wouldn't have waited 18 years and I bet they won't wait another 18 years. They're not concerned about the residents, the town, the county, the water supply. They're concerned about the dollars."

What happens next?

After consultations with the Rockland County Health Department and Delo, Kleiner said the conclusion is that the water strippers will be safe as long as they operate within a given set of parameters. United Water's spokespeople have said that if monitoring shows any increase in the amounts of contaminants, they'll be more closely watched but that a continued rise, even if it does not reach up to state allowed standards, will trigger the shut down of the wells.

As to greater oversight of all pollution situations, Kleiner said that under previous state administration, the DEC as well as other departments had lost a lot of personnel. But in the new budget presented by New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, he asked for money to hire 106 more engineers for the DEC. "I think the additional hiring is going to help," in enforcement of state standards and pollution cleanups, said Kleiner.

O'Donnell told Our Town that within the next week members of the DEC will meet with him, United Water and the Rockland County Health Department to discuss the Malcolm Pirnie, Inc. report and what further action needs to be taken by all parties involved.

Richard Henning, spokesperson for United Water said, "This is a critical water supply for us to bring back on line to ensure that Rockland has a safe reliable water supply for all of our customers. United Water has 58 other wells; each and every piece of our network is an important component in making sure that we have enough water."

The $1.7 million treatment facility will allow the wells to be reactivated for an additional water supply of 300 gpm sustained and 400gpm peak (gallons per minute). 


Bottled Water - Members of the Zoning Board of Appeals have plenty of bottled water at hand as they listen to testimony in relation to United Water's plan for a water stripping tower in Tappan. Better watch out though. If the water is bottled in polyethylene terephthalate, then the water leeches antimony from its container. After six months there's enough to cause nausea, dizziness, depression and eventually death.

Dave Duran - Dave Duran of Tappan questions the board about pumping the water from the well on property adjacent to his own, to another commercial location where it can be stripped of pollutants.

UnitedWatergroup - Tappan residents came out in force last Wednesday to question the efforts and solutions United Water has offered to clean up the water from their wells.

Waterstripper on Middletown - United Water has an active water stripping facility on Middletown Road in Nanuet.

PIPwaterstripper - The water stripper at the Palisades Parkway gas station facility at exit five has been out of service since 1998.





Read the other lessons by Anne Phyllis Pinzow.  Especially her Rules for good reporting.  


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