SCWA reverses flow in Orient

What a difference eight months make.

Back in September when the Suffolk County Water Authority announced it would receive federal stimulus money to pay for part of its proposed three-mile-long water main from East Marion to Orient’s Brown’s Hills community, CEO Stephen Jones said the availability of stimulus funds made the controversial project economically feasible.

“This money was offered, which pays half the cost, so it’s not prohibitively expensive any longer,” he told a reporter for The Suffolk Times.

Fast-forward to the spirited April 6 Town Hall hearing held to consider an amendment to the town’s water supply map that would include the proposed main. There, Mr. Jones said in response to a question that the $3.8 million project could proceed with or without stimulus funds.

Why the change? According to a SCWA spokesman, the authority’s board of directors decided last month “they were going to go ahead with the project one way or another because of the water situation in Orient.” Both the authority and the county’s Department of Health Services say water quality there is compromised by agricultural chemicals and other contaminants. Some residents point to the continuing water quality issues in supporting the main extension.

The SCWA board’s latest stance on stimulus funds represents an about-face. Excerpts of minutes from the Oct. 1, 2009, directors meeting show that directors voted to approve expenditures for the water main only “after assurances from the chief financial officer and general counsel that the closing [on the project] would not proceed unless the authority was satisfied that the money would be forthcoming from the EFC” — the state’s Environmental Facilities Corp., which dispenses stimulus funds for drinking water projects.

Ironically, the SCWA appears to be in no danger of losing the $1.9 million in stimulus funding awarded to the project this winter. Even though the money is unavailable to the authority pending the outcome of a lawsuit demanding a full environmental assessment of the project, “there’s no sunset provision that they break ground by a specified date,” said Jeffrey Hammond, a spokesman for the state Department of Health, which approved the use of stimulus funds for the project.

Those who filed the lawsuit and many other Orient residents fear that the water main could eventually extend service to a much larger area and perhaps prompt unwanted development.

While saying they don’t oppose the introduction of public water, these residents want a complete State Environmental Quality Review Act, or SEQRA, assessment of the project and completion of the town’s comprehensive master plan before the project can go forward.

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