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Editorial: Turf war for clean water

The Riverhead Town Board quickly went on the defensive last week after the Suffolk County Water Authority wrote to the Secretary of the Navy seeking federal assistance to undertake a project to connect public water to homes in the Calverton and Manorville area.

Riverhead Supervisor Yvette Aguiar called it “an attempt to thwart our economic development goals at EPCAL.” Town officials have been wary for some time about an SCWA effort to take over its water district, and view this proposal as a key first step.

Before continuing down the path of a turf war, the Town Board and SCWA should take a deep breath and consider the most critical questions: What’s the better option for those living in the approximately 128 homes that rely on private wells threatened by PFAS contamination? How can these homes quickly and most effectively be connected to public water?

Perhaps there’s a way to satisfy both entities, since both will need federal funding to carry out any plan to extend water to this area. And more pressure should be put on the Navy to pay for public water hookups, since it doesn’t disagree that the on-site contamination happened on their watch. 

And now, according to recent test results, the contamination appears to have migrated off Navy property over time and onto private property that doesn’t have access to public water.

The request for funding from the Navy comes from the fact that contamination dates back to when the Grumman Corporation made and tested fighter planes there from 1956 to 1996. The Navy retained 352 acres of land when Grumman left; 144 acres were deemed to be successfully remediated in 2007 and given to the town, while 208 acres have yet to be addressed.

The SCWA argued it can complete the project at a lower cost than the Riverhead Water District. The SCWA provided a cost estimate to the Secretary of the Navy with a breakdown that showed connection costs of $6.3 million for the Manorville area and $5.8 million for the Calverton area. 

Ms. Aguiar took exception to the characterization of the Riverhead Water District in the SCWA letter, written by CEO Jeff Szabo. He wrote that the district “employs only a handful of full-time employees with no significant experience managing a project the size and scope of the Calverton/Manorville area.”

Ms. Aguiar has every right to defend the town employees in the water district.

“Attacking the qualifications of the Riverhead Water District staff is unacceptable,” she said.

But the point remains that the SCWA has a much larger staff and cooperation on completing a large-scale project could be beneficial.

All of this back-and-forth arguing over turf, however, remains largely moot until the necessary federal assistance is delivered. The SCWA isn’t about to begin a project with its own funding. And it would be a significant cost for Riverhead Town as well. There’s been no immediate indication that federal funding is on the horizon.

Many moving parts remain to be worked out as both sides jostle for position. The most important concern, which should be at the forefront of everyone’s mind, is the people living in those homes with potentially contaminated water.

They deserve better.