Opinion

The Divide: A sewage treatment plant in a park, next to a school?

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The Divide: A sewage treatment plant in a park, next to a school?

The City of Albany is a member of the Albany Pool Communities, a partnership of six local municipalities working together to abate combined sewer overflows (CSOs) into the Hudson River. In addition to Albany, the other five members are the cities of Troy, Cohoes, Rensselaer and Watervliet and the Village of Green Island.  

The Pool Communities are under a NYS Department of Environmental Conservation consent order to minimize the number of CSO discharges into the Hudson. The largest and most costly project under consideration by the Pool Communities is the construction of a wastewater treatment plant in the city of Albany. The proposal by the Albany Department of Water & Water Supply is to build the plant in Lincoln Park, near the intersection of Martin Luther King Boulevard and the access road to the Thomas O’Brien Academy of Science and Technology (TOAST; pre-k to grade 6). There is a divide between the requirement and necessity for this facility and siting it in a park and adjacent to a school.

A brief summary of CSOs. According to the consent order, combined sewer overflows are defined as “wet weather discharges from a combined sewer system of untreated domestic sewage, and industrial wastewaters combined with stormwater and/or snowmelt, at a point prior to reaching the waste-water treatment plant.” This usually occurs when we experience a heavy rain event that overwhelms the combined sewer system. CSOs cause major water pollution issues with solid waste, known as “floatables,” (yes, your poop) flowing into the Hudson River. The consent order required the Pool Communities to develop “a long-term control plan for the abatement of combined sewer overflow discharges…” So, Albany being the largest municipality in the Pool, has the highest amount of overflows, thus the need for a wastewater treatment facility.

The Department of Water & Water Supply (“the department”) is calling the proposed wastewater/sewage treatment facility the “Beaver Creek Clean River Project Proposal.” Sounds enticing and avoids any mention of treating sewage containing human waste. The project has an estimated price tag of $45 million. It will service the 5.2 square mile area known as the Beaver Creek Sewer District. The current sewer system in the Beaver Creek district can only handle 45 million gallons of water a day in “dry weather” conditions. In a rainstorm, each one inch of rain equates to 90 million gallons of stormwater. So, one can easily see that the present system, built more than one hundred years ago, is unable to handle major wet weather conditions.   

The plant will use screens to remove leaves and other solids. The water will also be disinfected with chlorine. Odor controls will be in place and community benefits will be added, such as creating a garden and working with TOAST on an education program. The plant will operate from May through October.

I fully understand the need for a sewage treatment plant to help with the Beaver Creek Sewer District CSO issue. I know the Pool Communities have to meet the agreed upon CSO reductions contained in the consent order. I support taking actions to keep the mighty Hudson River from further degradation due to human and industrial waste carried through our sewer system. What concerns me is siting a sewage treatment facility in a park, next to a public school, and a community swimming pool. Tractor trailers full of dangerous chemicals will be making deliveries to the plant. The solid waste that is removed from the water stream will have to be treated and disposed of. And, despite up-to-date odor control methods, there will be days when odors are a problem. I’m not comfortable with truck-loads of chemicals being delivered to a facility located just a hundred yards or so from a school.

As for the use of parkland for the plant, I feel that alienation of the land is required. This would require the NYS legislature to pass a bill authorizing a portion of Lincoln Park to be used for the purpose of a sewage treatment plant. The NYS Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation’s “Handbook on the Alienation and Conversion of Municipal Parkland” states “to use parkland for another purpose, a municipality must receive prior authorization from the State in the form of legislation…” The legal basis for parkland alienation is grounded in common law and derives from the public trust doctrine which restricts the ability of a local government to change its use. This doctrine has been in use in NYS since the late 1800’s and has been upheld in the courts numerous times. (See e.g.: Brooklyn Park Comm’rs v. Armstrong, 1871; Merriweather v. Garrett, 1880; Friends of Van Cortlandt Park v. City of New York, 2001.)

The department sees alienation different than I do, and claims that if parkland is being used for a “public purpose” it does not need to be alienated. However, the Handbook specifically states that “a non-park purpose is considered alienation, even if the use has a public benefit or purpose.” Public work facilities are included on the list of municipal purposes that require State legislative approval (See: Capruso v. Village of Kings Point, 2010.)

I urge the city to follow the alienation protocols that are required under common law and affirmed in the courts. My reasoning: 1. To protect the city from a lawsuit that could drag out the project for years should someone take the city to court for failure to properly alienate the parkland; and 2. To give the public a chance to weigh-in on using Lincoln Park for a sewage treatment plant, through the Common Council committee process and public comment period. Since, because we are a “home rule” state, the Common Council will have to pass legislation requesting the state legislature to pass the alienation bill.

A sewage treatment facility for the Beaver Creek Sewer District is needed to meet the requirements of the consent order and to protect the Hudson River from further pollution. But we should not be cutting corners to rush this project through, especially where our children’s health and safety are concerned and our park could be misused. The Pool Communities have been meeting for more than 10 years now to devise ways to meet the Clean Water Act requirements. A few more months to make sure we get it right should not place too much of a burden on the Pool. And, the extra time might help us find a site not near a school and in a public park to build a sewage treatment plant.  

A public meeting on the “Beaver Creek Clean River Project” will be held at TOAST Academy at 94 Delaware Ave in Albany on Tuesday,  April 10 at 6:30 PM. 

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