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Eastchester, NY keeps fighting United Water treatment plant

By KEN VALENTI
THE JOURNAL NEWS

(Original publication: February 16, 2004)

EASTCHESTER The long-fought battle against a planned water pumping station treatment plant that would use chemical disinfectant in a residential neighborhood is reaching a new phase as the town asks the state's highest court for help.

After losing the latest round in court in December, Eastchester leaders want the Court of Appeals to rule that the town's Planning Board was right to require a detailed study of the plant in 2001 six years after the same board ruled that such a study would not be required.

Residents fear harmful chemicals could be released at the station on California Road, just east of Route 22. The new station would sit among homes. It is within one-tenth of a mile of Eastchester middle and high schools, and hundreds of grade school children are bused near the site every school day, school officials say.

"The town of Eastchester is committed to continue this fight against this unwanted, and in our opinion unnecessary water pumping (and treatment) station," said Town Supervisor Anthony S. Colavita.

At issue is the company's plan to replace a 1,000-square-foot pumping station on California Road with one about eight times its size. The current station is a pale yellow building just east of Route 22 that, at a quick glance, could be mistaken for a home similar to the ones around it.

Water would be treated there with sodium hypochlorite, a disinfectant, and sodium hydroxide, or caustic soda, which is used to reduce acidity in water. The amount of water passing through the station would increase from 4 million gallons to 50 million gallons a day, said Rich Henning, a United Water spokesman.

"The building just doesn't belong," said Eleanor Steckler, a real estate broker and corresponding secretary of the Lake Isle Civic Association. "It's an industrial building in a residential neighborhood."

"We own and operate many facilities ... in residential areas all throughout Rockland County, Westchester County and Bergen County and Hudson County in New Jersey," said Henning of United Water. "We have an excellent safety record an excellent track record over the years for safety. Our workers are very experienced. But nonetheless, we certainly understand the concerns of the community."

The fight has gone on for years, with the most recent ruling coming in December, when a panel of Appellate Court judges upheld a state Supreme Court ruling that sided with United Water. The judges decided the company did not have to conduct the study, called an environmental impact statement.

Fighting the plan has been difficult for Eastchester because the Planning Board in 1994 declared that the plant would have no significant impact on the area, thus releasing United Water from the obligation to prepare the impact statement. Such a study, which is part of the state-mandated environmental review, would have looked in detail at safety issues and the effects the larger station would have on traffic, noise and other aspects of the quality of life.

Residents fear a catastrophe from using chemicals so close to homes and schools, and trucking the chemicals on the same roads school buses use. They say they are even more afraid now that fears of terrorist attacks have risen after Sept. 11, 2001. Judy Blau of Safety Always First for Eastchester, or SAFFE, a citizens group, said they feared a fire at the plant could create clouds of noxious gas.

"The reality is the people will suffer as a result of it and are put in a precarious position in these times," Blau said.

Henning said the chemicals would not make an effective target.

Stephen Kass, an attorney for United Water, called fears of chemical catastrophe "pure nonsense," saying that the issues had been reviewed by the Planning Board before its 1995 decision.

"These are standard chemicals that provide for disinfected drinking water and if the people of Eastchester were truly concerned about safety, they would want to improve the quality of drinking water for residents," he said.

United Water New Rochelle, a unit of the French corporation Suez Lyonnaise des Eaux, provides water to 137,000 people in New Rochelle, Eastchester, Greenburgh, Bronxville, Tuckahoe, Pelham Manor, Ardsley, Hastings-on-Hudson and Dobbs Ferry, according the company's Web site.

The two sides agree on one thing New York City's plan to build a plant in Mount Pleasant that would disinfect water with ultraviolet light could help the situation by cutting down on the amount of disinfectant needed in the water. It would treat water headed for New York City and southern Westchester.

Blau and Colavita said they wanted United Water to look into how it would affect the need for further treatment; Henning said the company is already doing so.

At the same time, residents have been calling their state representatives for help. Blau spoke with State Assemblywoman Amy Paulin, D-Scarsdale, last week, but Paulin said in an interview later that, with the issue in the courts, there is a limit to what else can be done.

She is preparing a bill that would require future environmental impact statements to give extra consideration to the effects environmental changes would have on children. But it would come too late to help Eastchester's case.

"Sometimes unfortunate situations make you think of good ideas, but I don't believe (you can) go back on a process that's already been through court," she said.

Reach Ken Valenti at kvalenti@thejournalnews.com or 914-637-2243.