Governor could bridge funding gap for Orleans water project

A state Department of Transportation truck makes a stop at the salt barn on Route 12 in Collins Landing. Photo from Watertown Daily Times.

A state Department of Transportation truck makes a stop at the salt barn on Route 12 in Collins Landing. Photo from Watertown Daily Times.

COLLINS LANDING — The office of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo may soon award grant funding needed by the town of Orleans to break ground on a $12.3-million water project, according to a businessman who learned about the matter from an aide to an elected state official.

Steven J. Conaway, owner of Thousand Islands Winery, said he received a phone call from the aide Wednesday night about the matter.

“He told me the governor’s office is expected to make a big announcement within the next two days to bridge the (funding) gap and get us water,” he said Thursday. “It’s getting looked at by the governor’s office … I think we’re right on the cusp of something happening.”

Meanwhile, Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell, D-Theresa, urged Basil Seggos, acting commissioner for the state Department of Environmental Conservation, to loosen regulations on DEC funding so that Orleans and other municipalities can fund projects more easily.

The potential announcement by the governor’s office comes as at least $2.3 million in grant funding is needed for Orleans to break ground on a water line and ensure users pay no more than $800 in annual water costs over a 30-year period.

Since 2012, the town has been planning the project to address the contamination of about 50 wells surrounding the DOT’s salt storage barn on Route 12 in Collins Landing. The water line would serve 503 users in and around Route 12 from Alexandria Bay to Fishers Landing. While the DOT has been blamed for the salt contamination, the agency has refused to admit responsibility or discuss the matter.

The possible funding windfall comes after Mr. Conaway recently reached out to the offices of U.S. Sen. Charles E. Schumer and Rep. Elise Stefanik to investigate whether the Federal Emergency Management Agency could provide aid by declaring the contamination zone a national disaster area. Under that scenario, he said, FEMA could provide temporary bottled water to people with contaminated wells.

But Mr. Conaway said the legislative aide, whom he declined to name, informed him that the governor’s office is opposed to pursuing status as a national disaster area.

“He believes the governor would not be interested in declaring it a national disaster area because that would classify it as a superfund site, and there are all kinds of implications involved with that,” Mr. Conaway said. “So it’s going to be better for the state to get this water project going.”

As a national disaster area, Mr. Conaway said, the federal government could hold the state accountable for cleaning up the contaminated property in Orleans. “New York would be the one liable to track contamination back to the DOT building,” he said.

Mr. Conaway’s winery on Seaway Avenue is less than a half mile from the DOT building. Since 2003, the state has paid for bottled water to be supplied and delivered there. But others in the affected area don’t receive bottled water from the agency, and Mr. Conaway is exploring whether non-governmental agencies, such as the Red Cross of Northern New York, could meet that need.

Russell responds

During a budget hearing Thursday in Albany, Mrs. Russell told Mr. Seggos there is “a serious problem” in her district, and communities such as the town of Orleans are not receiving adequate funding to handle water issues. She urged him to change the criteria to acquire funding under the state’s water infrastructure program, noting that Orleans has a funding gap for its project even after combining grants and loans from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Office of Rural Development and state Environmental Facilities Corp.

Orleans has received a $11.4-million no-interest loan from the EFC for the project. But because the loan money can be used only for construction of the water line and not maintenance and water purchases, only $8.4 million can be used. An additional $500,000 is expected to be provided by USDA Rural Development. On top of that, a $500,000 grant from Empire State Development and grants of $500,000 and $100,000 from the Dormitory Authority of the State of New York have been awarded.

Following criticism that she did not fully understand why the full EFC loan could not cover the project costs, Mrs. Russell said she was looking to secure another $500,000 to help the village of Alexandria offset costs for the waterline.

Orleans Supervisor Kevin R. Rarick said he’s happy Mrs. Russell gave the town its deserved mention during the hearing. “It’s great that she’s got it out there,” he said. “I think that’s a huge step.”

Other municipalities with residents afflicted by DOT salt include the town of Pitcairn in St. Lawrence County, where residents living near a DOT salt barn have experienced contamination for more than a decade. Construction of a municipal water line between Pitcairn and the nearby village of Harrisburg in Lewis County is still in the early planning stages, but town officials say they want the project to be fully funded by DOT.

Gov. Cuomo’s 2016 state budget allocates $250 million for the municipal drinking water and wastewater infrastructure grants, which will be used with the EFC’s revolving loan program.

By Ted Booker and Brian Molongoski, Watertown Daily Times