Water Search Troubles Plains Road Residents

Photo by Maxwell Reide.

The Freshwater Exploration Project being conducted by the Village of New Paltz in search of a temporary water supply for when the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) closes the Catskill Aqueduct for repairs in 2016 has amassed claims of contaminated well-water from some residents of Plains Road in the Town of New Paltz.

In May, exploration project coordinators determined a potential source of groundwater located at a privately owned gravel mine at 101 Plains Road, New Paltz, according to Village trustee Tom Rocco,  who is overseeing the project on behalf of the village board.

A test well was drilled, which confirmed the presence of an underground layer of water-bearing soil from which groundwater can be extracted, also known as an aquifer. Test pumping was conducted for a continuous 54 hours, at which point word that an area homeowner’s well-water levels had dropped and resulted in a burned-out well-pump reached project workers, Rocco said. The pump was later replaced and paid for by the DEP.

From then until after a June meeting with the residents of Plains Road where concerns were voiced, site testing was postponed to determine and address the issue that the aquifer pumping may impact area residents’ wells, Rocco said. Project administrators meanwhile sought the proper protocols from the New York State Department of Health and Department of Environmental Conservation to conduct formal site testing for the possibility of the Plains Road aquifer being used as the temporary water source.

“There was very much more in the way of resident fear and concern about the consequences in their wells, to which they attributed to the May test,” Rocco said.

Plains Road residents were asked to volunteer to have their wells monitored for when the test pumping was scheduled to resume in mid-July, of which 57 homes participated. According to Rocco, the well observation was conducted to determine if indeed there was a direct correlation between the underground groundwater at the test site and the water used by area residents’ wells.

The wells were tested for water quality and measured for volume before and during the pumping was recommenced on July 12, Donna Liebman, a Plains Road resident whose well was among those monitored, said. The wells were again tested and measured near the end of July, two weeks after the pumping was completed, she said.

“Here’s where things get problematic. In order to [conduct this assessment] properly, a baseline, or pre-test, measuring quality and volume of homeowner wells, must be established before any drilling is done. This didn’t happen, since the wells could easily have been affected by the May test,” Liebman said.

According to a report released by the project administrators at the end of August, the test results of the July well monitoring during the pumping revealed that 17 of the 57 resident wells showed the presence of coliform, a bacterial indicator of unsanitary water, and five wells tested positive for E.coli, a bacteria that comes from animal excrement. The test results from after the conclusion of the test pumping showed 19 coliform present wells and three E.coli positive wells. Some wells also saw an increase in sulfur and lead.

“People are wont to say ‘I never had a [contaminate] problem before,’ which does not mean that they had their well tested,” Rocco said. “And even if they’ve had their well tested before, this doesn’t mean [the project testing] caused it.”

Rocco said homes with very shallow wells or wells that bore into rock for water are not a part of the enclosed aquifer of the test site which is located under 150 ft. of clay sediment. The only resident wells that can accurately be shown to be part of the aquifer are those wells whose water volume was shown to have decreased during the test pumping. A connection could not be made to the contaminated wells because the test site did not show any results of coliform or E.coli in either water quality test, he said.

Liebman, whose own well-water was determined to have coliform, said homes found to have contaminated well-water were deemed unsafe for drinking and were provided with bottled water. However, when she and other Plains Road residents filed a notice of claim against the village – a document that reserves an individual’s right to sue at a later date – they were no longer provided with bottled water “even though their well-water cannot be used for drinking.”

At a village board meeting in August, Plains Road residents also called for the consulting engineer of the project David Clouser to be replaced, citing inadequate adherence to procedure and a conflict of interest. Clouser is the Town of New Paltz’s engineer but his engineering firm, David Clouser & Associates, has been contracted by the village for the exploration project alongside hydrogeologists from Chazen Companies and land engineers from Brinnier & Larios.

“Plains Road residents believe that Mr. Clouser intends to use the data gathered from the two July tests as part of the rationale for choosing 101 Plains Road as an appropriate water source. This has been demonstrated by statements he has made at public meetings and reports he has submitted,” Liebman said. “The May test and its possible effects are not mentioned or acknowledged. Mr. Clouser continually refers to the first July test as the pre-test, as if the May test never occurred. In addition, Mr. Clouser is the Town Engineer. Town residents expect town officials to safeguard the interests of the town. However, in this case, Mr. Clouser has been hired by the Village to find an alternative water source. He has earned a great deal of money doing this work. The site at 101 Plains Road is in the town. How can he protect the quality of life on a town road and simultaneously earn a huge fee by destroying it?”

Plains Road residents requested that a new study and search should begin, implemented by a different engineering firm and that homeowners “suffering damages now or in the future resulting from the May and July tests” should be compensated in full.

The village is continuing to explore all possible options for a temporary water source while litigation has stalled further project development in the Plains Road area. Rocco said alternative potential water sources include treatment of the Wallkill River depending on the results of a year-long test which will conclude in December, as well as talks with the Town of Lloyd to pipe water in from Highland.