Water suit is flushed

Orient residents fighting the Suffolk County Water Authority’s three-mile extension of 12-inch mains east across the causeway suffered a legal setback Wednesday when a state Supreme Court justice ruled that a full environmental review is not required before work can begin.

Justice Ralph F. Costello found that state environmental law does not mandate a detailed review because each of the 24 houses in the Browns Hill community where the authority would be providing service was previously fitted with SWCA-provided water filters. He handed down the ruling from the bench in Riverhead after hearing arguments from both sides.

The decision came only days after settlement talks over the weekend failed when Orient residents rejected a proposal to allow the authority to add the new mains with restrictions on future hookups.

“The proposed settlement was totally unacceptable,” said MaryAnn Liberatore of Orient. “A complete waste of time for all concerned, particularly the majority of Orient residents who have moved to the position of ‘hell, no!’ with respect to SCWA and its proposed pipeline.”

The town was a defendant in the residents’ suit, based on the Town Trustees’ decision to grant the water authority an administrative permit, which did not require a detailed environmental review, for permission to drill at an angle beneath Dam Pond and install a 600-foot section of the main there without disturbing wetlands.

“We’re considering our options,” said Ms. Liberatore. “We’ll consult with our neighbors, counsel and elected officials, and make our decisions after thoughtful planning.”

In a partial reversal, the town recently told the authority that Dam Pond is not the only section of the pipeline’s route to fall under the Trustees’ jurisdiction and that additional permits are required. That position does not affect the Dam Pond permit.

“We would welcome any future application from SCWA, after public consensus for water service is established,” said Supervisor Scott Russell. “The court case was about the permitting process. That is just one issue here and it is the first issue. Down the road, I am sure we will be dealing with the other, larger issues of the comprehensive plan and the role and authority of towns in their own decision-making versus the power and authority of these so-called public authorities.”

“The court’s decision upheld the Trustees’ issuance of an administrative permit for directional drilling under Dam Pond, which is but a portion of the installation of this water main,” said town attorney Martin Finnegan. “The town has placed the SCWA on notice that no construction is to commence on the water main extension until the requisite approvals are obtained for the entire project.”

The town has long maintained that the authority cannot proceed unless the Town Board votes to change to the town’s public water service map. The Town Board recently voted unanimously, 6-0, against revising the map to accommodate the extension of mains from East Marion into Orient.

The authority argues that Browns Hills already lies within its service area and that further Town Board approval is not needed.

“There are issues beyond what happened in court this week,” the supervisor added.

Bob DeLuca, president of the Group for the East End, an environmental advocacy organization, said water main opponents need to shift the fight in a new direction and challenge the stimulus funding that would cover half of the project’s $3.8 million cost. Originating in Washington, that funding was funneled through the state.

“The public has carried this as far as they can,” Mr. De Luca said. “The stimulus money should be pulled until the environmental implications can be explored.”

SCWA CEO Stephen Jones doesn’t agree.

“The court’s ruling confirms that the authority acted in accordance with state law,” he said. “It is the authority’s purpose and mission to bring clean, safe drinking water to the residents of Suffolk County,” he added. “The authority will continue this in accordance with the requirements of state law.”

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