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Long Island Contractors' Association

Newsday

Suffolk sewer district expansion plan advances

December 4, 2010

LICA
Photo credit: Newsday / Michael E. Ach | Waste water in the final clarifier tanks at the Bergen Point Treatment Plant, Bergen Ave., Suffolk County Department of Public Works Southwest Sewer District #3, West Babylon. (Oct. 19, 2006)
Suffolk's Southwest Sewer District, born in scandal and mired by delays and cost overruns, was a $1-billion municipal mess that sent contractors to jail and cost elected officials their jobs.

The saga even saw the murder of sewer czar John Flynn by a jealous girlfriend hours before he was supposed to testify about corruption to a grand jury.

So intense was public anger, huge concrete sewer pipes on roadsides became spray-painted campaign signs: "Flush Klein in '79," a reference to then-County Executive John V.N. Klein, later ousted in a bitter GOP primary. Backlash was so strong, all plans on the drawing board for other large sewer projects throughout the county simply died.

Now, three decades later, a $65-million sewer resolution sailed through the county legislature's public works committee last week without a word of debate or a peep of protest.

The measure, which will be voted on Tuesday by the full legislature, is the largest investment in the once controversial district since it opened in 1981. It will increase the West Babylon sewer plant's capacity by 33 percent to treat a total 41 million gallons of waste daily.

It's also a sign the once incendiary project is now seen as a beacon to help refurbish struggling downtowns, such as Wyandanch, and an engine to spur new economic growth in much of western Suffolk.

"We've closed that old chapter and opened a new one," said Michael White, executive director of the Long Island Regional Planning Council.

White should know - he started his career as an environmental monitor on the project and later testified as a whistle-blower during sewer district probes.

Slated to cost $291 million, the project took 14 years as streets were torn and hundreds of miles of pipe installed, with residents taxed for years before the first flush. Flynn, himself indicted in June 1979, was knifed by his girlfriend for allegedly cheating on her only hours before he was to testify before a grand jury, where he'd promised a prosecutor he'd tell all because he was "fed up with covering up for everybody."

"The scandal put a halt to any sewer construction for 30 years," County Executive Steve Levy said last week. "But we've turned the page . . . If you want job growth, downtown revitalization and workforce housing, new sewer capacity is indispensable."

New capacity is needed because the plant is now at 95 percent of its 30-million-gallon-a-day limit, with projects such as the Canon U.S.A. Inc. headquarters being built in Melville.

On the horizon are plans for the 9,000-unit Heartland Town Square on the old Pilgrim Psychiatric Center property in Brentwood, which may produce as much as 2.5 million gallons of sewage a day. Babylon, meanwhile, is looking to build a bustling downtown with its Wyandanch Rising project, which will generate 400,000 gallons daily.

Officials say they are studying how to extend the sewer district - which now covers about 84,000 properties in the lower part of Islip and Babylon below Southern State Parkway - to those areas on the towns' northern borders. Ultimately, local residents will be asked to vote on becoming part of the district.

Unlike the 1970s, when federal and state governments paid 87.5 percent of sewer costs, there is little aid for new sewers or refurbishing aging facilities.

The Southwest District needs to spend $150 million to replace the bay portion of the outfall pipe because similar pipes used elsewhere have failed. The county also is studying how to recycle rather than truck out sludge after protests ended plans to burn it.

Businesses, such as Canon and Deer Park's Tanger Outlet Center - outside the sewer district - can pay for the right to hook up to the system rather than build their own plants.

But funding a new collection system for homeowners who could be added to the expanded district will be daunting.

Asked about new spending on the once infamous project, Klein, 69, just laughed. "I'm beyond caring about vindication," he said. "But in hindsight it's obvious it was a sound investment."


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