EnvironmentFeatured PieceThe White Plains Examiner

Westchester Approves Land Swap for New Filtration Plant Near Airport

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An aerial view of the area at Westchester County Airport that is likely the home of the mandated water filtration plant that Westchester Joint Water Works will build.

The Westchester County Board of Legislators last week approved a land swap that provides a 13.4-acre parcel to Westchester Joint Water Works (WJWW) that is adjacent to the Westchester County Airport to build a new filtration plant.

The county will deed property to the WJWW so it can construct the Rye Lake Water Filtration Plant near the intersection of Tower Road and Purchase Street, which is also part of the airport. Meanwhile, WJWW will deed 13 acres on the other side of the airport to the county.

Strong opposition to construction of the facility has been growing, partly because the plant will be within the Kensico watershed and in close proximity to the airport where contaminated groundwater is being monitored and treated for assorted toxic chemicals including polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS).

PFAS are a class of over 9,000 man-made chemicals used by industries and in consumer products, which has led to significant pollution to some groundwater supplies in New York State and across the nation. These chemicals can build up in the human body and have been linked to thyroid disease, kidney and testicular cancer, high cholesterol, preeclampsia and many other harmful health effects.

PFAS was used at the Westchester County Airport for firefighting exercises by the New York Air National Guard until 1983. Remediation work and site investigations at the airport have been ongoing under the New York State Brownfield Cleanup Program since 2020.

That PFAS and other toxins could be released into the groundwater and leach into the nearby water supply while excavating the site for the plant has raised serious concerns. According to the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) for the plant, adopted on Sept. 28, 2022, about 49,900 cubic yards of fill would be removed from the project site. The estimated maximum depth of excavation is 35 feet, which is needed to build the 37-foot-high plant. The proposed construction schedule includes 12 phases over three years.

WJWW, which serves an estimated 100,000 residents in Harrison, Mamaroneck, Rye and New Rochelle, was ordered to build a filtration plant by New York State in 2003 and by the federal government in 2019 to filter water from Rye Lake.

Local groups objecting to the plant being built on the site include the Sierra Club Lower Hudson Group, the Purchase Environmental Protective Association, Purchase Friends Meeting and the Coalition to Prevent Westchester Airport Expansion.

“We acknowledge the need to build the treatment plant, but judge the risk of contamination of PFAS pollution to the water in the Kensico from soil and groundwater disturbance from the construction at this location is too great,” said George Klein of the Sierra Club Lower Hudson Group.

The water filtration plant site is just over 1,000 feet from Rye Lake, which feeds into the Kensico Reservoir, which supplies water to some Westchester residents but is a major water source for New York City. The land WJWW owned before the exchange was previously earmarked for the filtration plant and is not in the Kensico watershed.

But the 13.4-acre site is deemed by officials to be more advantageous because the filtration plant would be connected to an existing sanitary sewer line that is now on the airport’s property.

Paul Kutzy, manager of WJWW, cited a December 2019 lab report where minimal levels of PFAS were detected in the groundwater.

“However, due to the known presence of PFAS elsewhere on the airport property, groundwater that is encountered during excavation and construction at the project site will be treated,” Kutzy said. “As an added measure, soils excavated will be tested for the presence of PFAS and handled appropriately.”

Groundwater samples cited in the 400-page Westchester County Airport October 2023 Semi-Annual Groundwater Sampling Results show that 35 out of 39 groundwater test wells near Hangar E have concentrations exceeding the water quality guidance values. The test well next to Hangar E measured 6,270 nanograms per liter (ng/L) or parts per trillion (ppt). Hangar E is a little more than 1,000 feet from where the new water filtration is slated to be built.

Last week the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finalized the first-ever federal limits on toxic PFAS in drinking water, establishing the Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs) of 4 parts per trillion (ppt) for the two most widely-detected PFAS chemicals, PFOA and PFOS. The EPA’s limits are now stricter than the 10 parts per trillion that is the current standard in New York State.

Before voting to approve the land swap, county lawmakers last Monday commented on the lengthy process it took to review and research the environmental impacts of the planned plant.

County Legislator Nancy Barr (D-Rye Brook) said that WJWW is not a county entity and that its members are comprised of the Village of Mamaroneck, the Town of Mamaroneck and the Town/Village of Harrison.

“The only reason we are looking at this property at all is it’s the best property to build this facility and it is on property the county does own,” Barr said. “It has been a very thorough, fair and transparent process. The property will remain in the Brownfield Program and the DEC (state Department of Environmental Conservation) will have oversight over what happens with the construction of the water filtration plant should it go forward. It gives me hope and it gives others a sense of security that this is going to be done in the most environmentally sound way possible.”

Opposing the land swap was Peter Close of Purchase Friends Meeting House, which is located on Purchase Street, close to the site for the water filtration plant.

“Do you think it’s a good idea to build a water filtration plant in a PFAS brownfield?” Close inquired. “PFAS plumes go downhill and travel for miles in groundwater. I’m here to ask you to vote no against building the water filtration plant in the Kensico watershed when it could be built outside the Kensico watershed.”

County Legislator Erika Pierce (D-Katonah), chair of the Public Works and Transportation Committee and vice chair of the Parks and Environment Committee, said hundreds of e-mails were received and multiple listening sessions were held as part of the review of the land exchange legislation.

“These were difficult and technical issues, and regardless of our decision here, someone was going to be unhappy,” Pierce said, directing her comments to about a half-dozen residents attending last week’s Board of Legislators meeting.

“To be clear, what we are voting on tonight is just a land exchange,” she added. “It is not an approval to build the facility at that site. The approval will come from the DEC and the Town of Harrison. There are steps ahead and this is just one step in this process for WJWW.”

County Legislator Catherine Parker (D-Rye) reminded her board colleagues that when WJWW attempted to build on their own property they were met with resistance from those living in the area.

“People said not in my backyard and threatened lawsuits,” Parker said. “It is clear that if today for some reason WJWW would not go ahead and build the filtration plant at the airport and go back to the original property, they would be met with lawsuits that would drag out for years.”

The vote was near unanimous, with County Legislator and Majority Whip Terry Clements (D-New Rochelle) voting no and County Legislator David Imamura (D-Irvington) recusing himself.

Kutzy said last Monday’s vote was a critical step in moving the filtration plant forward.

“Next steps include obtaining land use approvals from the Town/Village of Harrison Planning Board, which is expected in the coming months, as well as obtaining approvals from other regulatory agencies,” Kutzy said.

Barring any unforeseen delays, construction of the plant is expected to begin next year and would be completed in time to be operational by 2028.

For those who oppose the construction of the water filtration plant on the land swap site, the fight isn’t over.

“We are looking into legal action, but that has its own complexities and obstacles,” Klein said. “We are continuing to lobby relevant officials, continuing to engage media.”



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