Whoops: a water deal that never was

The congressman thought he had a deal. Supervisor Scott Russell thought otherwise.

On Monday, Rep. Tim Bishop’s office issued a press release proclaiming that after recent discussions he’d held with the Suffolk County Water Authority, the SCWA agreed to “put on hold” its deeply unpopular project to build a three-mile-long water transmission main between East Marion and Orient’s Brown’s Hills community, pending passage by the Town Board of a resolution to create a special water district. But there was just one problem.

Although the release said Mr. Bishop had called Mr. Russell “to inform him of the development this morning,” the supervisor told a reporter, “At no time did we talk about Southold Town creating a special water company and accepting the responsibilities of the Suffolk County Water Authority.”

“We don’t create water districts at the demand of the SCWA,” he said, adding, “If the people of Orient want to create a special water district down the road, I’ll take that up with the people of Orient.”

Mr. Russell said what the congressman did tell him was that the SCWA wants to replace the Brown’s Hills project, which is eligible for $1.9 million in federal stimulus money, with another, less controversial water project in Mr. Bishop’s district, to which the money could be reallocated.

Many Orient residents fear a water main in their area would spur more development, and some have posted signs reading “No Water Main, Save What’s Left.” Although opponents of the pipeline suffered a setback last week when a state Supreme Court justice ruled that it didn’t require a full environmental review, their efforts to stop the project continue unabated.

Asked to respond to Mr. Russell’s comments, Congressman Bishop conceded that the press release was “imprecise” but said the SCWA can only be discharged from its responsibility to provide clean water to Brown’s Hills if some other entity assumes that obligation.

“So it could be the Town of Southold and Scott is quite right — we never discussed that as a specific outcome — or it could be some other entity,” said Mr. Bishop. He added, “I was doing what I did at the request of the Town Board, because they had asked me to put a halt to the project and pull the stimulus money.”

Repeated attempts to obtain comment from the SCWA were unsuccessful. Mr. Russell received a letter Tuesday from water authority CEO Stephen Jones saying, “the SCWA would like to meet with the town as soon as possible to determine how to proceed with the project or what alternatives may be available.”

Mr. Bishop’s announcement drew mixed reviews from Orient residents.

“We welcome Congressman Bishop’s involvement in this matter and hope that it is resolved in a way that is consistent with protecting the environment and rural character of the East End of the North Fork,” William Ryall and Keri Christ said in a statement on behalf of plaintiffs in the unsuccessful lawsuit seeking a full environmental review of the project. But longtime activist Freddie Wachsberger was unimpressed.

“The scenario offered by Mr. Bishop suggests endless continued wrangling between the SCWA and the town rather than what most of us hoped for — respect for the wishes of the community and an end to the specter of SCWA involvement in Orient,” she said.

Reinforcing the impression that the SCWA seeks a way out of the Brown’s Hills project were comments made this week in an interview with The Suffolk Times by the authority’s outgoing chairman, Michael LoGrande, a former county executive who lives in Cutchogue. “I would drop the project in a heartbeat if we could spend it elsewhere,” he said of the stimulus money. “We don’t go where we’re not wanted.”

“I do want to preserve that [$1.9] million dollars” in federal funds, continued Mr. LoGrande, who steps down as the SCWA’s chairman on May 31. “I would love to go to Calverton, where people do want us.” He was referring to a neighborhood there that he said has “a couple of hundred” homes with unsatisfactory water quality.

But shifting the stimulus dollars to such a project may not be an option.

The state Department of Health, which awards stimulus money for water projects, says federal guidelines stipulate that it must be used for the purpose for which it’s intended. If the SCWA doesn’t use its $1.9 million for the Orient project, the money “has to go to the next eligible project from our original list, which is in Onondaga County,” said a department spokeswoman, Claudia Hutton. “The funding is not to a community, it’s to a particular project.”

Congressman Bishop seems undaunted, however. “I’m not letting go at all of the prospect of rerouting that money to another project in Suffolk County,” he said.

If the Orient project does proceed, it “won’t return a penny in profit” for the SCWA for 10 to 15 years, according to Mr. LoGrande. “Obviously, our motivation is not financial. We started off from wanting to help people.”

He said that in the late 1990s the county’s Department of Health Services had found that quality of water in Brown’s Hills fell below state standards because of the presence of agricultural chemicals and other contaminants.

While not disputing that finding, Mr. Russell, like many Orienters, is suspicious of the relationship between the health department and the water authority.

Calling the department a “sales-pitch coordinator for the SCWA,” he said, “If the department of health has these overwhelming concerns about the water quality of Orient, where have they been? Why aren’t they meeting with the community on their own? The only time they seem to come to Orient is when they’re accompanied by the Suffolk County Water Authority.”

Responding for the health department, chief engineer Walter Dawydiak said that his agency and the SCWA are “totally independent agencies.”

“There is no collusion,” he said, “only a mutual goal: to provide a safe drinking water supply for Suffolk County.”

Suffolk Times editor Tim Kelly contributed to this story.