Photo: Adobe Stock

A decade-old dispute simmering just beneath the surface has come to a rolling boil and residents in a remote section of Manorville worry about getting caught up in a fight that could delay their community’s access to public water.

Homes south of the former Northrop Grumman military manufacturing plant, a site owned by the the U.S. Navy for decades and leased to Grumman until 1996, have private wells and currently no access to public water. Some of their wells have been contaminated by chemicals believed to have originated on the Navy site.

The Navy has disavowed responsibility for offsite groundwater contamination and has said it will not be held to New York State’s recently enacted drinking water standards for PFOS, PFOA and 1,4 Dioxane. Navy representatives have told residents and officials at community meetings last year the Navy is bound only by federal drinking water standards, which are essentially nonexistent for these “emerging contaminants.”

After an outcry from community and environmental advocates, the Suffolk County Water Authority offered to work with the Suffolk County Department of Health Services to sample residential wells and include testing for PFOS and PFOA — tests the county health department’s lab, which offers free annual water tests for private residential wells in Suffolk, was not equipped to complete.

The testing established that PFOS, PFOA and a host of other contaminants were present in private wells in the area.

Sen. Chuck Schumer and Rep. Lee Zeldin have called on the Navy to provide funding to connect the homes to public water.

The Navy and Northrop Grumman knew, as far back as the mid-1980s, that the company’s operations on the site had contaminated groundwater, according to court documents in an insurance case between Northrop Grumman and its liability insurance companies. A 2013 federal court decision, first reported by Newsday last month, revealed that Grumman knew that groundwater contamination resulting from its operations could migrate off-site and threatened drinking water as well as the Peconic River estuary.

Residents — many of whom have for years been using bottled water for drinking and cooking, while worrying about using well water for bathing — are hopeful they will finally have public water hookups available.

But the question remains: which system will they be hooking up to? That’s where the decade-old dispute comes into play.

Sixty-six of the homes in the area south of the former Grumman site are in Brookhaven Town and 62 are in Riverhead Town.

The Suffolk County Water Authority — an independent public authority established in or about 1934 — already provides public water to homes in parts of Manorville that are within Brookhaven Town.

The water authority maintains that its distribution area is the entire territory of Suffolk County and includes any area not already served by another legally established water supply system. It points to a 1949 ruling by the New York Water Power and Control Commission that said, “The Suffolk County Water Authority may, without further approval of this commission, extend its supply and distribution mains within and supply water to persons residents in the entire county of Suffolk.”

Riverhead officials argue that under state law, the Town of Riverhead Water District can be extended to serve people who need it anywhere within the boundaries of the town.

So residents of the 62 homes in Manorville — homes that are within the Town of Riverhead but outside the existing boundaries of the Riverhead Water District — find themselves on the front line of a longstanding dispute between the town and the water authority.

The dispute is bigger than who serves those homes, however. It also involves the right to supply public water to the former Grumman site — which the Navy transferred to the Town of Riverhead Community Development Agency in 1998, with the expectation that the site would be developed to replace jobs and tax base lost when Grumman left town. At the time of the transfer, the town was given ownership and control over the existing water and sewer systems that then served the former Grumman plant, now called the Enterprise Park at Calverton, or EPCAL.

During the decommissioning and planning process for the site that took place in the years leading up to the transfer, the town obtained grant funding from the U.S. Economic Development Administration to extend water mains into the EPCAL property to replace the water system previously owned and operated by Grumman. The RWD then ran a 12-inch transmission main along Route 25 and into the EPCAL property south to River Road and along Grumman Boulevard, according to an environmental impact statement prepared by the town in 2014. All existing development within the “industrial core” was required to connect to the new mains.

In October 2009, SCWA general counsel Timothy Hopkins wrote to the State DEC to object to the town’s then-pending DEC application\to extend its water district boundaries to include the 2,900-acre EPCAL site — Extension 75B. SCWA said the EPCAL site is within its “assigned territory” and it is “ready, willing and able” to serve the site. It also argued that the Riverhead Water District, which was struggling with capacity issues in its system, was not capable of serving development at the site. The water authority said that the RWD’s existing mains within the site was not part of a “legally established waterworks system.”

Since at least the late 1990s, the Riverhead Water District extended its distribution system without permits required by state law, building between 30 and 40 extensions without the required permits, according to the State DEC, which issued a notice of violation to the district in 2005. The district entered into a consent order with the DEC in 2009. The DEC told RiverheadLOCAL in July the permits subject to the consent order were still pending. The district has added extensions since then as well. Town officials say the water district filed the required applications but the DEC never acted on them.

Fast forward to 2018. The town approved a controversial $40 million contract to sell 1,644 acres of vacant industrial land at the EPCAL site to an affiliate of Triple Five Group. In order to complete the sale, the town must subdivide the land it owns at the EPCAL site into eight lots. To get final subdivision approval, the town must obtain a DEC permit under the State Wild, Scenic and Recreational Rivers Act. Riverhead applied to the DEC for the permit in September 2019.

The DEC in July issued a Notice of Incomplete Application. The DEC is unwilling to sign off on the permit, allowing the town to complete the subdivision, unless the town can demonstrate that RWD has sufficient capacity within its system to operate its entire service area using standard industry calculations. The DEC referenced a July 2005 notice of violation issued to the RWD “for adding numerous extensions, including the EPCAL property, and operating wells without a permit.”

The DEC’s Notice of Incomplete Application also advised the town it would not approve an application for RWD to serve the EPCAL site unless the town demonstrates that “SCWA has no objection to RWD serving this area.”

Those issues remain unresolved. In November, in a new Notice of Incomplete Application, the DEC rejected the town’s argument that the EPCAL site is within the RWD. The town water district “is not legally serving this area as no permit granting such authority has been issued by the Department,” the DEC notice said.

“Should SCWA no longer wish to serve this property, they must formally rescind their objection to RWD serving the EPCAL property which in part states that SCWA is “ready, willing and able to serve this area,” the notice said.

For some town officials, what’s at stake in this fight is larger than supplying water to the EPCAL site and certainly larger than the right to serve the 128 homes in Manorville that need public water.

“The goal is to keep control of our district, our water aquifer,” Supervisor Yvette Aguiar said yesterday. “If SCWA has control of our water, they can direct it to other parts of their service area,” she said.

“The goal is to keep them out,” she said.

Aguiar argues that SCWA wants to “take over” the town’s water district. The claim is not baseless. In a May 2010 interview, just before his retirement, then-SCWA CEO Stephen Jones said as much to RiverheadLOCAL.

“It is the manifest destiny of the Suffolk County Water Authority to be the purveyor of drinking water to all of Suffolk County. That is a statutory mandate,” Jones said. The water authority had offered Riverhead $12 million to buy the Riverhead Water District in 2008, Jones said. The town board quickly rejected it, but the offer was still on the table, he said.

Jones said SCWA would attempt to block all RWD extension applications going forward.

Former supervisor Sean Walter said at the time that the water authority’s objection to RWD serving the EPCAL site amounted to “a hostile takeover attempt.”

Aguiar in her 2019 campaign for office accused then-incumbent supervisor Laura Jens-Smith of secretly negotiating a deal with the water authority, which both Jens-Smith and SCWA chairman Patrick Halpin emphatically denied. Aguiar promised to keep the water district in town ownership.

Aguiar said yesterday SCWA’s effort to serve the homes in the portion of Manorville in Riverhead Town is “a step attempt.” The water authority, she said, already made a claim to EPCAL. “Now they’re going into Manorville,” she said.

“We can’t have this happen. It’s one of our assets. We can’t lose it,” Aguiar said.

“We’re willing to work with them. We were in discussion with them,” she said, referring to the water authority. “Then they fire off this letter to the Navy. That was shocking to us,” Aguiar said.

On Jan. 12, SCWA wrote to the Secretary of the Navy to say the authority can provide public water to the 128 homes in question at a cost of $12.2 million and asked the Navy to assist in obtaining federal funding to finance the project.

One week later, on Jan. 19, the town sent SCWA a stern letter demanding that the water authority rescind its 2009 letter objecting to RWD’s proposed Extension 75B that would serve new development at the EPCAL site. It gave the water authority 10 days to respond, but did not state an ultimatum. The letter was signed by the entire town board.

“We received the letter, and it has been disseminated to the board for review,” Suffolk County Water Authority CEO Jeff Szabo told RiverheadLOCAL yesterday through a spokesperson. He had no further comment.

Aguiar said the town water district is prepared to extend its water district to the 62 homes in Manorville that lie within Riverhead Town. Last February, it authorized H2M Engineers, the Riverhead Water District’s consulting engineers, to prepare, at a cost of $9,500, a map and plan for a new water district extension to serve the area. In October, the engineering consultants delivered the map and plan to the town.

The consulting engineers concluded the capital cost of the RWD extension (no. 94) would be about $4.8 million, which does not include the cost of installing individual service lines for the homes.

Their report also concluded that “The District does not currently have the source capacity to serve this extension during maximum day demand and shall rely on storage capacity to satisfy maximum day demands. Pending applications with the NYSDEC will reduce potential maximum day deficits, however not entirely. The District will need to pursue adding supply and storage facilities in the high-pressure zone to overcome calculated deficits.”

If the district were to finance the extension the properties incorporated into the district would be subject to an extension tax rate of $77.01 per $1,000 of assessed value, according to the plan. The extension shall be subject to key money fees of $6,052 per residential dwelling and $9.10 per gallon for commercial properties, the engineers said.

Riverhead Town is also now investigating the feasibility of extending public water to an unspecified number of homes and businesses “east of the former Grumman War Production Plant” that “do not have access to District water mains and … have ongoing issues related to drinking water quality,” according to a resolution adopted Wednesday by the Riverhead Town Board. The board authored the payment of $9,500 from the town’s general fund to have H2M prepare a map and plan for this extension.

“We’ve taken a proactive approach, to have maps and plans and everything ready, so once we get the funding we can move forward immediately,” Aguiar said after Wednesday’s town board meeting. “And that that’s actually my goal. If you look at — you know, we’re spending town money, but we’re — we’ll probably get it back, once, we get funding also. And then we can just go immediately, instead of saying, well, we have to wait for this meeting and approval. So we’re going to be ready,” she said.

Manorville resident Kelly McClinchy, who has been organizing residents in the area to advocate for public water, said she’s concerned the town’s battle with the water authority over bigger issues might “prevent us from getting what we need.”

“The town hasn’t even asked the Navy for money for us. Suffolk County Water Authority asked the Navy. Schumer asked the Navy,” McClinchy said.

“My understanding is SCWA will start dropping pipe on the side of the road with a commitment from Schumer,” she said.

The Riverhead Water District, on the other hand, has to get the DEC’s approval and the DEC has already put the town on notice that it won’t approve a water district extension application from the town without the consent of the water authority.

“How is that going to work out?” McClinchy asked.

Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment said her organization “would highly discourage the town and SCWA to get into a water war.”

“The objective is to get people clean, safe drinking water as quickly as possible,” Esposito said. “The town needs to defer to the DEC’s assessment of whose jurisdiction the 62 homes are in. This is not a debate. There are jurisdictions. There are rules and procedures in place,” she said.

“We’re not going to let the public be the pawns in a water battle,” Esposito said, adding “CCE is not going to stand for any delay in bringing water to those who need it.”

Support local journalism.
Now more than ever, the survival of quality local journalism depends on your support. Our community faces unprecedented economic disruption, and the future of many small businesses are under threat, including our own. It takes time and resources to provide this service. We are a small family-owned operation, and we will do everything in our power to keep it going. But today more than ever before, we will depend on your support to continue. Support RiverheadLOCAL today. You rely on us to stay informed and we depend on you to make our work possible.

SHARE
Denise Civiletti
Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.