Thursday, September 22, 2005

What's That We Smell?

First It Was The Town's Garbage, Now Its The County's Sewage ~ The community Alliance Asks, "Who's Watching The Potty?"

If what goes down behind the dumps at the Town of Hempstead's Sanitary Districts isn't bad enough, we now have an expose, from the Long Island Press, as to deplorable conditions at Nassau County's Cedar Creek Water Pollution Plant - Conditions that pose a risk to the health and safety of workers and residents alike.

We take Hempstead Town Supervisor, Kate Murray, to task for the Town's professed lack of "control" over its Sanitary Districts. So, too, do we ask Nassau County Executive, Tom Suozzi, under whose watch the sewage treatment plant operates, "just who's in charge here?"

Whether it is "no control" at the Town, or "no idea" at the County, the resulting public outrage and condemnation must be the same. From Sanitary Districts to Sewage Treatment Plants, The Community Alliance wants to know, "Is anybody looking out for us?"

The feature article, as appeared in the September 22, 2005 edition of the Long Island Press, is reprinted below with permission of the paper.

Disastrous Sewage Plant Threatens Health
A Long Island Press Exposé
Christopher Twarowski 09/22/2005 12:02 am

Makeshift catch basins direct flowing rainwater through battered, crumbling ceilings. Workers trudge through moats of raw and semi-treated sewage to repair damaged equipment. Water rises around high-voltage electrical boxes. There's mold. Disease. Flooded tunnels. Open manholes. Chemical spills. Exposed wiring. Human waste.

"Looks like New Orleans," says Christine Marzigliano, aghast at the scene unfolding before her eyes.

But it is not New Orleans. It's right here in Wantagh, at the Cedar Creek Water Pollution Control Plant, as revealed in shocking undercover videotapes obtained by the Long Island Press. Marzigliano, chairperson of the Cedar Creek Health Risk Assessment Committee, a grassroots watchdog for the sewage treatment plant, was responding to room after room of abject disrepair and decay of the most unsavory nature.

After the Long Island Press showed him the tapes, which were shot clandestinely by workers, Jerry Laricchiuta, president of the Civil Service Employees Association (CSEA) Local 830 of Nassau County, said: "This is unacceptable," and immediately demanded access to the plant for himself and a handful of deputies and county officials, including the union's industrial hygienist. On Wednesday, Sept. 21, they toured the plant, which opened in 1973, and were even more horrified. "We went to one room where there was dried up sewage on the floor, then there was bugs and spider webs all over the wall," Laricchiuta says. "It was disgusting."

According to the video and eyewitnesses, there is severe decay of the ordinary kind: peeling paint, chipped plaster, insects, mold and mildew. There are signs of institutional carelessness: shoddy electrical work, open manholes and grates, garden hoses draped to and fro and jerry-rigged catch basins to contain dripping water and chemicals.

Then there is the sewage. All over the place. It covers the floor in some of the highly tracked tunnels that run throughout the expansive facility. It touches 2,000-volt electric panels. Some of it has solidified and blocks drains, creating stagnant cesspools.

Irony of ironies, staff toilets have no water, and are clogged with dried and aged human feces.
"It's a disaster," says a plant worker. "Every day we cannot believe that this place still runs."
Conditions inside the 32-year-old plant are, according to union officials and other knowledgeable witnesses, in gross violation of local, state and federal regulations.

"You have water around electrical devices, so someone can be electrocuted," explains Tim Corr, a CSEA administrative assistant in charge of member health and safety, who toured the plant Wednesday after the Press showed him the tapes. "You certainly have a slip-and-fall hazard. You have confined space areas. You have mold problems."

Workers and others say that the deteriorating facility, which treats about 60 million gallons of the South Shore's wastewater every day, is at a breaking point. Indeed, on two separate occasions in recent weeks the plant has spilled sewage into the Atlantic waters off Jones Beach, according to a handful of current workers, all of whom requested anonymity for fear of retaliation.

"It's going to come to the point where we're not going to be able to treat sewage anymore," says one employee, "If something goes wrong in the lead building where all the sewage comes into the plant and it can't be fixed right away, you're going to flush your toilets and you're going to have all your sewage backing up."

On Sept. 9, the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) received an anonymous call reporting sewage washing up on Jones Beach, according to DEC spokesman Bill Fonda. The DEC notified Hempstead bay constables and the Jones Beach State Park police, who investigated the following day and reported finding nothing, Fonda says. But the bay constables say they have no record of the incident or any investigation on their part. That's not the type of issue bay constables deal with, a spokeswoman explained.

But plant employees tell a different story. They say that a mechanical breakdown occurred while they were cleaning the massive, overloaded final tanks in the week after Labor Day.

"The pins all sheared, and the pumps kept pumping," explains an insider. "And instead of filtering the stuff that was going out, it all went through, out to the pipe." The pipe in question runs beneath Jones Beach and another 2.5 miles out into the Atlantic Ocean. The outflow is normally the water that results from the sewage treatment.

So it's perhaps no surprise that earlier this week, on Sept. 20, a DEC inspector dropped in at Cedar Creek for a "reconnaissance inspection" (routine inspections are once a year). According to the DEC's Fonda, the inspector did find overflow spilling from the final tanks, as well as seal leaks on some sludge treatment pumps. But as near as the inspector could determine, the sewage had been contained inside the facility.

"There are some issues at the plant," Fonda says, adding that the agency will issue a report and give the plant a schedule for fixing the problem. The maximum fine for a sewage spill would be $37,500 per violation per day, but Fonda explains that the agency often gives warnings and lets the facilities use money to fix their problems rather than pay government fines—after all, it's taxpayers who eventually foot the bill.

Evidence of the second potential spill was first noted by officers with the Nassau County Police Marine/Aviation Bureau, who were patrolling the sea around the 6-mile pipe in a helicopter—part of their regular duties, since the pipe can't be seen from shore. According to Nassau County Police Officer Vincent Garcia, an unusual flow coming from the pipe induced the cops to call a supervisor at the plant, who, according to Garcia, said that a "diffuser at the end of the pipe was off" and that no spillage occurred. There was no further investigation.

But in this case, too, plant workers tell a different story. Inside the plant after the police called in, workers rushed around taking samples, trying to find the problem.

"We knew things weren't looking good," says one. "You can see that sh*t is floating where it's not supposed to be. It was at the end of the treatment and it looked like the beginning of the treatment, that's how bad it was."

If the spills are unproven, however, the conditions inside the plant are not. Cedar Creek insiders may joke about the "Cedar Creek trots," diarrhea that all workers can expect to get, but the risks to their health are no laughing matter. Robert Campo, Local 830's union president for the Department of Public Works (DPW), says sore throats are among many known health problems shared by plant workers.

"This is terrible. Certainly you have hepatitis problems," grimaces Corr, of the CSEA, while viewing one of the videotapes. "Hopefully these guys have their shots."

In fact, according to Campo, workers' vaccination shots were put on hold by plant management. Workers allege that this is typical; they say they are regularly denied basic safety equipment, such as protective masks for when they're working with deadly chemicals.

They also say they have been complaining about the unsanitary working conditions at the Cedar Creek facility for years, to county officials, legislators, news outlets and oversight agencies like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), but to no avail. They describe rush cleanups that take place whenever OSHA inspectors are coming. Laricchiuta, who was elected union president only a few months ago, says his office has been hearing about problems at Cedar Creek and, to a lesser extent, Bay Park Sewage Treatment Plant, from employees via numerous anonymous and non-anonymous calls—at first just one or two a week, but more recently as many as one a day.

Bay Park was ranked one of the worst-run facilities in the New York/New Jersey area for violations including failure to submit reports and discharge of excessive pollutants. The report, conducted by the national nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council, used data from the federal Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA's) Permit Compliance System from 1995 to 1999.

The overarching problem, the workers say, is inadequate maintenance, an outgrowth of budget and staff cuts.

"Certain areas of the plant are down mechanically because we're just so worn out and they won't give us overtime. We only have eight hours in a day and there's so much equipment broke and we can't keep up," says a longtime employee. "So what's happening is you're getting a buildup of sludge here that's getting here that shouldn't come here because we have nowhere to put it."
Cedar Creek and Bay Park are owned by Nassau, but Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi had no idea about the appalling conditions, according to a spokesperson, and other administration officials similarly denied any knowledge of the plant's problems.

Mainly, the proverbial buck in this case stops with Richard Cotugno, superintendent of both plants. Cotugno started his career in Nassau County as a sewage treatment plant operator trainee at Bay Park. How he became supervisor isn't entirely clear. The union and others affiliated with the plant say he was appointed; the county says he merely gained enough seniority. The Press was informed by Peter Gerbasi, Nassau's deputy county executive of parks and public works, that Cotugno would not return our calls. Gerbasi spoke for him.

Both Gerbasi and Dena Miller, deputy commissioner of public works, denied there were any spills or internal problems at the plant and defended Cotugno.
"Rich runs a tight ship," Gerbasi says. "There are absolutely no violations."
It's a remarkable statement, given the evidence found in the videotapes. The administration and the union appear to have come away from the Wednesday morning tour with remarkably divergent experiences. Miller denied having seen any health or safety hazards. Laricchiuta found a disaster area.

Plant officials are supposed to notify the county health department and DEC if there is ever a spill outside the plant, and immediately launch a hazardous waste cleanup. Workers say this is never done and allege constant cover-ups.
"Cotugno would never call in a spill," he adds, "because if he would have called it in, there would have been an investigation and he would not have looked good."

Fonda of the DEC says that Cedar Creek seems to have earned mostly "satisfactory" ratings so far.

Marzigliano's watchdog group was formed in 1991 over public health concerns about odors emanating from the facility. The two buildings closest to the facility are Mandalay Elementary School and Seaford Harbor Elementary School. Cotugno takes the watchdog group—a handful of concerned citizens—on a tour of the plant twice a year.

Marzigliano says she and her organization are also supposed to be notified any time there is a spill or a problem at the plant, and that she used to hear of incidents two or three times a year, but that she wasn't informed about any of the problems in the videotape. She says she frequently asks Cotugno if there are any issues at the plant, even offering to raise funds though her group. Her last meeting there was in May.

"He said, 'Everything's fine,'" she says.

That, workers say, is also typical of current management, which they claim does everything in its power to hide the plant's problems, including pressuring staffers not to report spills or leaks. They describe Cotugno as vindictive and threatening.

Marzigliano, who was horrified by the videotape, plans to demand legislative hearings and an independent investigation.

"Every process in the plant has to be taken a careful look at to ensure that the sludge in this county is being properly processed," she asserts.

Laricchiuta says union officials will return to the plant this Friday, Sept. 23, in an effort to make a comprehensive list of violations, which will then be sent to OSHA as well as CSEA's headquarters in Albany. The union also intends to go over the list point by point with County Executive Suozzi and demand results. As early as next week, the union could file health and safety grievances against the county. He also promises to examine the alleged intimidation tactics employed by management to keep workers quiet.

"I'm being told that our employees are being stifled from showing these violations and reporting these violations, and they're being intimidated, coerced and threatened by the superintendent," says Laricchiuta. "Whatever legal resources or whatever we have in our power, we're going to use against that kind of bully management."

Corr urges members who witness specific violations but are afraid to report them to OSHA for fear of retribution to file their complaint through the union. Union leaders will put their own names on the form instead of the employees'.
Gerbasi says this shows the union "reacting to a small group of disgruntled employees who rather than working to make things better would rather create crises that don't exist."

The Press showed the video footage to a former high-ranking plant official.
"You have no idea how upsetting this is," he said, his voice fluttering with heartache. "It will take millions and millions of dollars to fix this place."
Throughout the Press investigation, it became evident that Cedar Creek staff members take pride in their work. They speak of statewide competitions they used to win throughout the 1980s and early 1990s. A large display of their many trophies in the hallway of the plant's administrative building proves this.
But those sparkling trophies do little to boost morale today. These days, the only trophy workers seek is a clean facility. Now that these festering ills have been exposed to a little public sunlight, they just might get it.

© 2005 Long Island Press. Reprinted with permission.
Click here for Cedar Creek Update, as reported by the Long Island Press.


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  3. Every process in the plant has to be taken a careful look at to ensure that the sludge in this county is being properly processedCaverta

  4. I tried calling Mangano's office to get details about the sale of our water system to a private company (which I'm livid about), and I was told to call folks at Morgan Stanley. Apparently, it wasn't enough that we gave $700 billion to the very financial institutions that economically raped this country, but now, seeing that Mangano refers calls to an investment bank, we've apparently voted in John Mack - Not Mangano - in as our county executive.

    I don't want to pay Morgan Stanley for our drinking water. It's bad enought that these financial institutions took the homes of millions of people, now that want to charge us for drinking water, and to compound that, Morgan Stanley has Mangano so deep in its pockets that they're taking phone calls on his behalf?