January 2016: Agribusiness

Orleans needs a new clean water supply

Matteson_JayWPeople’s lives and businesses in Orleans near Collins Landing are suffering because of a water pollution problem. An underground salt contamination plume is affecting many local residents. They are using water contaminated with salt, and possibly arsenic and other metals, to bathe in and clean with. No one should consume it or use it to cook. Our largest farm winery, Thousand Islands Winery on Seaway Avenue, is in the middle of the contamination plume. It does not use the groundwater for wine-making. Instead, it uses 5-gallon jugs of clean water paid for by the New York State Department of Transportation, to make wine. This is a very labor intensive problem.Philip N. Reed, county legislator for District 3, which covers the towns of Orleans, Alexandria Bay and parts of LeRay, lives in the contamination zone.

Mr. Reed’s well water tests at 1,000 parts per million for sodium chloride or salt. To compare, the average salinity of seawater is 0.000035 parts per million. Mr. Reed’s water is more than 1,000 times saltier than ocean water. Mr. Reed said he believes the source of the contamination is a salt storage pile at a state DOT garage near Exit 50 off Interstate 81.

Thousand Islands Winery owner Steve Conaway says he has proof that the DOT’s highway facility on NY State Route 12 just across from the winery, is the source of the contamination. Mr. Conaway commissioned a study, called a water report, to determine where the contamination plume originated. He hired Dr. Samuel Gawan from Alpha Geo Sciences Inc., one of the top groundwater salt migration experts in the United States. The report, according to Mr. Conaway, concluded that the groundwater contamination originated from the DOT facility. Mr. Conaway said the report demonstrated that the contamination was from the salt used as a deicer on roads, not any naturally occurring salt that could possibly be in the bedrock. Chemical compounds, such as arsenic, could be traced from the contamination plume to the chemical makeup of the road salt.

Mr. Conaway said he cannot continue to invest in his winery operation, which employs approximately 35 people. Thousand Islands Winery uses roughly 2,000 gallons of water each week, which is coming in 5-gallon plastic jugs. The winery plans to expand and Mr. Conaway would like to stay in his present location. However, if a municipal water line is not built this year, he will be forced to examine facilities elsewhere in the state for a major portion of his operations. This is the year he has to make a decision.

I asked him if he has brought legal action against the DOT for the contamination he claims it has caused. He said he has and initially won the lawsuit, but when DOT appealed, the same judge overturned her ruling because the statute of limitations passed.

Kevin Rarick, Orleans town supervisor, said a municipal water line project is too expensive for town residents. He doesn’t believe residents should pay for a line that is needed because of a problem the DOT allegedly caused. Mr. Rarick said the burden should be on the state, not Orleans residents. He said the state has promised $11 million in “zero interest loans.” Unfortunately, town taxpayers will have to repay the loans and and he believes that’s wrong. Mr. Rarick said that if $2.5 million in grant money could be secured, digging for the waterline could start immediately.

As I follow this issue, I sit in wonder at the double standard applied here. A dairy farm had a major manure spill into the Black River and thousands of fish died. Within days the contamination was gone. Within a year, according to the Nov. 7, 2014, restoration and spending plan report for the case, the fishery was almost completely restored, if not better. The farm paid a hefty fine, which covered the costs of fishery restoration and building and restoring fishing access sites. If the same standard is applied to this groundwater contamination case, why doesn’t the state pay for the water line?

The lives of local residents are being harshly impacted and many will never be able to sell their homes. Thousand Islands Winery, the second largest employer in the town and a significant employer in Jefferson County, may have to move part of its operation. The burden of providing clean drinking water should not fall back on the local businesses and residents. The state should pay for a clean water line.

Jay M. Matteson is agricultural coordinator for the Jefferson County Local Development Corp. He is a lifelong Northern New York resident who lives in Lorraine. Contact him at coordinator@comefarmwithus.com. His column appears monthly in NNY Business.