HARRIMAN — For more than four decades, the wastewater from thousands of homes, businesses and schools in southern Orange County has made its way to a treatment plant on River Road to be cleaned and discharged into the slender Ramapo River, more of a stream than a river at that stage.
Now, after years of population growth and two expansions to satisfy it, the Orange County-run plant is at a crossroads, and sewer customers in the eight villages and towns that use it are looking at huge potential costs to meet two formidable challenges.
One is the expectation of more growth - quite a bit of it - and the need to increase treatment capacity yet again to accommodate it.
The other is the state Department of Environmental Conservation's demand for more stringent treatment at the Harriman plant to remove two contaminants - chlorides and total dissolved solids - it says are polluting the upper Ramapo. However technical and harmless that might sound, county officials say the necessary plant upgrades would be so astronomical in cost that it could doom the plant altogether.
And for the first time in 25 years, the county is looking at a radical solution for a high-growth area with no waterway wider than the Ramapo to bear its sewage: a giant pipeline to funnel wastewater 13 miles north to a new plant that would empty into the Hudson River instead.
The stakes are high for owners of the roughly 20,000 homes and businesses that use the plant and must pay for whatever solution the county Legislature chooses, in the form of annual charges on their tax bills for the bond debt. The options start at $51 million, the lowest that county consultants say it would cost to add 3 million gallons of daily treatment capacity to the Harriman plant and extend its life.
But the numbers shoot up if the DEC won't increase the Harriman plant's discharge limit again, foreclosing what would be a third expansion of the facility since it was built in 1974.
In a report set to be presented to a Legislature committee on Monday, Delaware Engineering offers the alternative of building a new plant on the Hudson to supplement the Harriman facility and treat up to 5 million gallons a day. The plant and pipeline would cost an estimated $146 million, and doing the life-extending upgrades in Harriman would bring the total bill to $171 million.
Yet neither of those proposals even addresses the other major concern looming over the deliberations: the more stringent requirements the DEC wants to impose on the Harriman plant.
Battling the DEC
Orange County officials have been fighting the new permit conditions the DEC wants to impose, arguing that the chlorides and total dissolved solids polluting the upper Ramapo are coming from all over its watershed, not just the Harriman treatment plant. They say reducing that contamination at its sources would be cheaper and fairer than hanging the responsibility and cost on sewer customers.
An engineering firm detailed earlier this year the extensive plant work and huge cost the county had been warning that the additional treatment would require. According to the report by Barton & Loguidice, the "reverse osmosis" system would cost $40 million to install and add $16 million a year to the plant's operating costs.
That expense is so high that Delaware Engineering has floated the prospect of closing the Harriman plant and piping its wastewater to a large Hudson River plant that could handle both the current flow and more from future growth.
In response to the county's complaints about the potential compliance cost, DEC officials told the Times Herald-Record last year that they had offered the county a "cost-effective and reasonable solution": a variance from the new requirement if the county works to identify the sources of the total dissolved solids and minimize the amounts entering and leaving the Harriman plant.
"The county rejected this offer," the state officials said.
The county formally challenged the DEC's permit proposal last year but lost in January, when an administrative law judge ruled that the DEC had the right to impose those new terms. The county appealed that decision to DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos, who hasn't made his determination. The county can press its case in court through a lawsuit if Seggos sides with his permitting staff.
The DEC also has proposed limiting chlorides and total dissolved solids from a smaller plant in Kiryas Joel that treats part of that village's wastewater - most of which is sent to Harriman - and empties into a Ramapo tributary. DEC officials offered a terse statement last week in response to questions about the permit discussions: "DEC will continue to work with Orange County and Kiryas Joel to protect water quality in the Ramapo River."
Kiryas Joel Administrator Gedalye Szegedin, in an emailed statement on Thursday, applauded county officials for fighting the "very stringent" DEC permit limits while "planning for this transition from the Ramapo to the Hudson." He put the cost of diverting wastewater to the New Windsor area at $75 million, which was Delaware Engineering's estimate for the pipeline and pump stations but not the treatment plant on the Hudson.
He argued "the best solution so far" was to pipe treated effluent from the Harriman plant to the Hudson, without having to build a new plant there. Delaware Engineering called that idea "compelling" in its report, but said federal law would likely prohibit that waste diversion as "backsliding" on permit standards.
"Residents within the county sewer district will have to carry a big burden in meeting the new permit limits, since this transition to the Hudson will be a very costly project, in the range of $75 million," Szegedin wrote. "We understand that this bill will have to be shared by all current and future users benefiting from the Harriman Sewer Plant."
Harriman Mayor Steve Welle said his top concern in the sewer discussions is that his taxpayers not be billed for the expansion of treatment capacity, since his village is virtually built out and doesn't need additional service. Developers should shoulder that part of the cost, not longtime property owners who won't benefit, he said.
His other main interest was the abatement of odors at the plant, particularly if it's expanded again. He said the sewage smell comes and goes in the surrounding area but has never gone away, despite the county's attempts at odor control over the years.
"People stopped calling in complaints," he said. "They gave up."
Monroe Mayor Neil Dwyer also said his village was nearly fully developed and objected to its taxpayers contributing to costs related to adding treatment capacity. "Why are we now going to burden them with additional costs?" he asked.
Town of Monroe Supervisor Tony Cardone echoed those concerns. He proposed billing future developers for any capacity expansion costs, based on the number of homes they are building, and using those payments to reimburse the property owners who had been paying off the bond debt through their tax bills.
"I can't see any other, fairer way to do it," he said.
The Delaware Engineering report calculates the equivalent of 7,625 housing units could be built in and just outside Kiryas Joel in the next 15 years, based on current construction and plans and future projections. That total, which consists mostly of homes but also includes new schools and businesses, could produce up to 3 million gallons of wastewater per day, matching the treatment capacity that would be added to the Harriman plant under the $51 million option.
The county and its consultants haven't revealed yet which specific sites it's considering for a new treatment plant on the Hudson, if that is what happens instead. The Delaware report suggests a spot near the Town of New Windsor's treatment plant, which also need repairs and possibly more capacity.
George Meyers, a former New Windsor supervisor who's running on both the Republican and Democratic lines in November to reclaim that office, said last week that he would fight any attempts to build a plant in his town. But his concerns were strictly about hosting such a facility, and he said he would be amenable to collaborating with the county on a new, shared treatment plant if it were built somewhere outside New Windsor.
"I would gladly close our plant and ship our sewage off to Newburgh, if that's what they decide to do," he said.