editorial screed

Vernon's Sewer Plan, 2004...

Members of the Vernon Town Council are enthused about the township's amended wastewater (sewering) plan, as it is the quickest way to enable development of the town's commercial sector - specifically Intrawest/Mountain Creek developments and the Vernon Town Center.
The TC believes that this sewering plan is what the entire town population - not just developers and local bizfolk - always wanted and needed.

But most of the population is too distracted by a million workaday pressures to think about complex issues concerning the local groundwater, much less to spare a thought for amendments to a wastewater management plan.
They just want their elected TC's assurances that the sewer plan is what's best for the future of their town and the wellbeing of their families.

The TC might, therefore, be reasonably expected to produce facts supporting the projected social, economic and environmental "benefits" of its growth-by-sewering plan.

Otherwise it may be hard to convince the taxpaying public of Vernon that the economy, civic society, and natural environment of the town will benefit from "sewering," which accelerates population growth, housing density, traffic density and water-sucking commercial development - conditions which invariably lead to growth of a "sewered" muncipality's expenses.

Once "sewering" begins, the die is cast. There is no going back.
Developers might, for openers, take full advantage of NJ's fast-track permit approval processing to construct multiple dwellings in and around the elongated "developable" zone identified as the state-designated Town Center.
Vernon officials, who have long subscribed to the pro-development theory that there is a superabundance of water available in the Vernon aquifer, may be caught in a contradiction if they try to limit the number of permitted connections to the aquifer-supplied public sewer system.

No doubt interested development corporations and their lawyers are already waiting in the weeds, U.S. Constitution and NAFTA in hand, ready to pounce on the very first municipal water or sewer use regulation that tramples on their investors' "rights."

It is naive to think that development interests will not eventually prevail in such matters.

On Sept. 22, 2004, the amended wastewater (sewer) plan for Vernon was presented by the Vernon TC to the County Freeholders.
The plan, after receiving the Freeholder rubber-stamp of approval, was to be forwarded to the NJDEP for state approval.

Essentially, the sewer plan is the same one presented at a well-attended public meeting the TC held four years ago (Oct. 17, 2000) at the Pleasant Valley Lakes Clubhouse in McAfee.
At that meeting, residents turned out in force to question how the sewer plan might affect the volume and quality of water in the aquifer, and more than a few folks had misgivings re: the plan to discharge treated wastewater in proximity to existing wells.

The TC was then, and is still, exasperated by any opposition to the sewer plan.
Then as now, the TC tells the public that objections to The Plan are based on fear and misconceptions, not facts.

Here's a fact: this plan will increase the amount of water to be pumped from the aquifer by 265,000 gallons per day.
Added to the present 380,000 gallons per day, Vernon Township's allotment is to be increased to 645,000 gallons per day.
That's roughly 235,425,000 gallons per year.
Another fact is that the increased gallonage will be pumped up to accomodate a new, large scale residential development & retail village at Mountain Creek on Rt. 94 in Vernon, and also to accomodate the new Town Center/ Main Street in downtown Vernon.
[The water and sewer plan did not contemplate the additional water-sucking hundreds of new multiple dwelling units to be built on the McAfee land just behind Legends Hotel at Rt. 94/517.]

At the Oct. 2000 meeting, Mayor John Logan assured the audience that he would never approve anything that would "compromise" the drinking water in McAfee.
In 2004, Township Manager Don Teolis remarked that the opponents of the sewer plan were using "scare tactics and general statements without any factual basis."

Yes, by all means, away with scare tactics and general statements.
Bring on the factual basis.

One fact of the sewer plan is that, in McAfee's midst, millions of gallons of SCMUA-treated wastewater are to be "injected" to recharge the groundwater supply via a large field of perforated distribution pipes.

Why should this particular wastewater treatment technology be a cause of public concern?

Perhaps because the topography in that part of McAfee bodes ill for such a plan.
It may be a very poor idea to inject millions of gallons of treated wastewater into an area where, after every rainstorm, the heavy flow of backed-up water overwhelms drainage structures (culverts) along the Black Creek and floods nearby homes and businesses.
That part of McAfee has, thanks to long-unremediated flooding caused by earlier construction on the Hamburg Mountain side of Rt. 94, already become a man-made wetlands area.
After every rainstorm, township road crews have to unclog the culverts and clear away the debris - to say nothing of the tasks they face in winter, when the floodwaters at Old Rudetown Road ice over.

A huge leach field which will distribute hundreds of millions of gallons of treated wastewater through perforated pipes in an already flood-prone wetlands area sounds like it might be a very unpleasant, high maintenance proposition.

McAfee residents and businesses, especially those in the flood zone, might be forgiven for being a tad apprehensive about that part of the sewer plan.

It might help if the TC could certify (on a "factual basis") that the sewer water treated at a to-be-expanded SCMUA plant, and then pumped back into a field of perforated distribution pipes suffusing a flood-prone McAfee tract so as to replenish the groundwater, will not carry the sickening contaminants (e.g., hormones, chlorine-resistant fecal pathogens, cryptospiridium, etc.) which, as a matter of fact, routinely survive disinfection and chloridation.

Flush and Forget!
Nobody likes to be reminded of the fact that sewer pipelines will carry wastewater from thousands of residential and commercial bathrooms, kitchens, and many other sources of chemicals, pharmaceuticals and pathogens.
Nobody likes to think about contaminants and pathogens surviving in the water after "treatment" and then being "injected" into the groundwater.
And, surely, nobody likes to think bio-hazardous contaminants might be discharged from faulty sewer pipelines into the groundwater/wells before the raw sewage even reaches the treatment plant.

Vernon residents would certainly be reassured to learn that the TC is now prepared to rule out any possibility of events like, for instance, the fatal 1993 water-borne outbreak of crytospiridium that made Milwaukee famous when the sewer system leaked wastewater into the city's drinking water supply.
In that single incident, which occurred 11 years ago, 400,000 people in Milwaukee fell ill, and 100 died.

Famous last words: It Can't Happen Here.

In the 1990s, over 1,000 residents of Greenwood Lake NY fell ill (giardiasis) as a result of drinking contaminated surface water which got into their town's water well. A new filtration system was eventually purchased and installed at great expense.

In 1999, a sewer leak in Warwick NY caused the worst outbreak of water-borne illness in the history of Orange County.
Residents in two Warwick Township communities (Wickham Knolls and Wickham Village) were sickened by drinking water which was contaminated when a sewer pipe leaked e. coli-infected raw sewage into their well water. A breakdown of the system's chlorination pumps further abetted the contamination.

On Oct.2, 2004, it was reported that a thick chemical cloud, rising from a sewer in Paterson NJ, had sickened firefighters taking part in a bioterror preparedness drill. The cloud set off fire alarms (!) at the board of education offices, authorities said ; they were not sure where the chemicals originated.
The firefighters, who had to use their respirators after gagging on the fumes, flushed out the sewer line using a hose.

It's also a fact that storm water plays hell with sewer systems.
As if the cryptospiridium disaster of 11 years ago were not enough, this year (May 2004) about 1.5 billion gallons of untreated sewage mixed with storm water was discharged into local waterways in Milwaukee and Glendale - and into residential basements.

In our area, the multimillion-dollar sewer system in Sussex Borough operated for less than ten years before it had to be shut down and replaced by an entirely new and different system. That new system, installed by SCMUA, is now slated for yet another expensive "upgrade."
Which won't come soon enough for the affected residents who, after the September 2004 storms and flooding, endured very unpleasant sewer system conditions and Unsafe Drinking Water alerts.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control estimates that nearly one million Americans fall ill every year because of drinking water systems polluted by dangerous microbes as well as known and potential carcinogens.

Sewer-related crises and sewer-related public health warnings are increasingly commonplace nationwide - and public health warnings are not, for the record, "scare tactics."

Nor is the endless, confiscatory expense of maintaining and fixing sewer systems a "misconception."

Here's a fact : the major challenge to NJ municipalities has been the enormous expense of remediating (or totally rebuilding) faulty sewer systems. That does not count the enormous expense of installing new sewer systems.

In May 2003, construction of a new sewer system (installation of pipelines, plus 500,000 gallon tank added to Musconetcong Sewer Authority's treatment plant) to service roughly 2,900 homes and businesses was begun in Hopatcong, NJ.
The original cost of the project was to be $46.5 million.
In Oct. 2004, the cost was increased by another $9 million (new project total: $55.5 million) which the Hopatcong council will vote on in November, and which will be added to the $32 million bond obligation payable by Hopatcong taxpayers, whose new total obligation will thus be $41 million. State and federal grants (your taxpayer dollars flow from many spigots) would cover about $14 million.
Sewer connection fees required of Hopatcong homeowners and businesses, whose user fees and bills are supposed to "pay for the system," will be anywhere from $1,500.to $3,500., in addition to their annual sewer bills of $875.
At present it is not known how much the property tax increase will be for debt-burdened Hopatcong residents.
It is known, however, that as engineering and construction costs continued to increase, the sewer installation's rate of progress decreased dramatically, leaving Hopatcong without enough income from system users to pay the freight.

Lest any Vernon residents be tempted to hide the silver, no less an authority on municipal spending than ex-mayor John Logan published a letter (NJ Herald, 9/22/04) containing this regrettable line:

"Fact: The reason developed countries use sewers is that modern treatment methods represent a vast improvement over flushing untreated waste into a septic field."

Sewer Biz Propaganda, maybe, but Fact? Ye gods! Flushing untreated waste into a septic field? That's not at all how a septic system works.
Septic systems are natural, effective, reliable, and passive systems for disposing of wastewater. With proper maintenance, septic systems will serve individual homes or commercial establishments for many, many years.

The fact is that septic systems are a most efficient, decentralized "modern treatment method" chosen by many households and sociallly responsible businesses alike in "developed countries," most notably this country.
There are currently more than 25 million septic systems in the United States. Further, each year about 400,000 new systems are built.

John Logan's propaganda owes much to the 100-year-old sanitary engineering tradition of designing lucrative public works projects instead of developing fiscally reasonable, socially responsible, environmentally benign methods of decentralized wastewater management.

The greatest forces behind the drive to sewer are the interests of commerce and industry: first, because public sewers are the cheapest place for industries and businesses to put their wastes; and second, because it is the enormously expensive system of central collection and wastewater treatment that generates the highest profits for engineering and construction firms.
For example, 80% of the total cost of sewering and treatment is in the laying of pipes, and engineering and construction firms get a flat 20% of the total project cost.
They get nothing from a municipality whose homeowners and businesses all have their own private septic systems.
This explains why the sewer biz [read: political campaign donors] lobbies continuously to persuade elected officials that septic systems must go.

After WWII, the U.S. government began serious promotion and subsidizing of sewer projects, and therefore subsidizing development and construction mania in towns and villages across the nation. This continues today.

The reason "developed countries use sewers" is because the ordinary, peace-loving taxpayers of those countries trusted the combination of elected officials/appointed regulatory bodies/sanitary engineering firms (all Developerfolk, historically) in the belief that "they know what's best for us."

The fact is that in the history of the United States there has never been a single case of death or an outbreak of disease attributed to water which proved to be contaminated by water from a septic tank/field system (great or small, new or old, well-maintained or even "in failure") anywhere in this country.

The contrasting fact is that thousands of Americans have fallen seriously ill and even died from water which proved to be contaminated by water from faulty sewer system pipelines.

Historically, public sewer systems - not private septic systems, despite mythology popularized by the sewer biz - present a public health risk.

Usually, in "developed countries," it is only after an outbreak of water-borne disease has struck the population that, at the cruel expense of survivors in that taxpaying population, a multi-million dollar remediation of their multi-million dollar "sanitary sewer system" is undertaken.

All of which may help explain why many taxpayers have come to distrust elected officials and their hired experts [campaign donors] who "know what's best for us."

This year (2004), in our own "developed country," the USEPA estimates that $50.68 billion is needed immediately to control sewer overflows in 772 combined sewer communities.
Your tax dollars at work - further lining the pockets of those who "know what's best for us."
The EPA has initiated lawsuits to force sewer fixes in a variety of locales around the country, but such litigation often takes years to resolve.

As to the Vernon sewer plan, perhaps in 2004 the TC can finally produce a factual basis to prove that pumping almost double the water from the aquifer will not cause a decline in the groundwater nor reduce the water supply in anyone's well.

Meanwhile, in Groundwater 101, we learn that when you pump groundwater from a well, the groundwater levels in and around the well decline.
This "drawdown" in the water levels is the driving force that brings groundwater to the well from the surrounding ground in the first place.
Unless the local groundwater supply is infinite and immune to natural laws (which would be a sensational fact indeed), increasing the volume from 138,700,000 to 235,425,000 gallons per year pumped from the aquifer might cause a decline in groundwater levels suppling local wells.
Since drawdown is additive, the likelihood of experiencing excessive drawdown in an aquifer increases with the number of neighboring users of the aquifer.
There is a wide range of potential problems associated with excessive drawdown. Local streams, wetlands, and lakes may dry up in response to massive groundwater pumping. Drawdown cones can capture man-made contamination and impact an entire groundwater supply. Infrastructure problems - groundwater withdrawal, flooding during storms, reversal of sewer flow - may arise from subsidence due to excessive drawdown.
Can the Vernon aquifer provide enough groundwater for all of the "stakeholders" and ecosystem needs, now and in the future?
If there is to be enough groundwater, it is perfectly legitimate to scrutinize how the proposed withdrawal will impact the aquifer. This scrutiny requires a thorough investigation of the aquifer on a regional basis including its dimensions, its hydraulic properties, its recharge and discharge areas, and its groundwater-surfacewater interactions.
But in the Vernon sewer plan, residents are simply to be comforted by the prospect that their pumped-out, flushed-away natural groundwater supply is to be replaced by treated sewer water.
Which might be a raw deal for the aquifer and its wellwater users.

The TC also claims that, as a direct result of this sewerage plan enabling yet more commercial and residential development, Vernon's tax levy will see a net decrease of $2.5 million to $3 million over the next 15 to 20 years as commercial ratables increase. Quotes vary from one press kit to the next, but are based on an expectation of "millions and millions of dollars in tax revenues" from Mountain Creek.
Vernon folks, especially those who have heard every variation of the amazing More Commercial Ratables = Lower Property Taxes fairy tale for at least thirty years of fantasy/bankrupt commercial ratables and rising property taxes, no longer believe such fabulations.

This brings us to the even more amazing claim, as the ubiquitous pro-sewer posters advertise, that Vernon will have cleaner water as a result of the new sewer plan.
Cleaner water! How so?
Is this to say that SCMUA-treated sewer water will recharge the Vernon aquifer with cleaner water?

The sewer enthusiasts who make that "cleaner water" claim must think the huge MTBE plume, released into the Vernon aquifer by way of 1989's underground Mobil gas tank spill, is history.
They are right, if you take the long view of history.  MTBE is a carcinogen which persists in the water for 5 million years, so future historians of Vernon might notice that MTBE outlasted the runoff contaminants from residential and commercial construction which typified the Town Growth Era.
But the sewer plan will not make the water cleaner in the Vernon aquifer. MTBE-contaminated water can not be remediated. Water wells in downtown Vernon's Rt.94/515 "center" should have reverse osmosis filters, or at least regularly replaced double carbon filters. As the MTBE plume zips around in the aquifer, the water wells appear to be safer on the A&P side of the Rt. 515 fault line.

A newspaper ad paid for by the Vernon Chamber of Commerce says that Vernon's sewer plan will "Preserve Our Pristine Waters and Drinking Supply by Protecting the Aquifer."
Not for nothing, but that Pristine Aquifer ship has sailed.
Protecting and preserving whatever remains of any other Pristine Waters hereabouts will, as growth-by-sewering plans Go Forward, require an outbreak of local environmental militancy beyond the TC's worst nightmares.

Facts? How about these:
TC spokesmen have made it plain that, in order for the town to attract "lucrative" commercial interests, central Vernon and the large-scale residential development plus shopping village at Mountain Creek must be sufficiently "sewered."
Only then can the valley be congested and paved over with "improved" traffic arteries providing access to quaint shopping villages, stripmalls, overpriced restaurants, and fast food franchises, all convenient to large-scale residential overdevelopments in the contiguous Vernon/Hardyston "resort communities."

This growth-by-sewering plan is directly responsive to the Gold Town ambitions of real estate developers, speculators, investors, luxury "resort home" builders/buyers, and assorted contractors or business owners in Vernon's commercial sector.
It is not responsive to the concerns of thousands of working-class taxpayers who will probably never own "lucrative" businesses or luxury homes in Vernon but who will nevertheless have to shell out, for years to come, eye-popping sums of tax money for engineering, construction, ongoing maintenance and remediation of Gold Town infrastructural systems.
The prospect of more high-turnover, minimum-wage resort service occupations in Gold Town Vernon, or of retail "shoppe" minimum-wage jobs, is definitely not responsive to the concerns of anyone who just wants to earn a living wage.

SCMUA bureaucrats and their sewer engineers/contractors no doubt look forward to the enlargement of the wastewater treatment plant (at an undetermined future expense of public money - $9 million, for openers?) in Hardyston, an expanded plant which, they say, will separately treat Vernon's sewer water and pipe it back as "near drinking-water quality" wastewater to the town-owned discharge field in McAfee.

Maybe, as an additional source of revenue, Vernon Township should get a license to bottle some of that "near drinking water quality" product, and to market it exclusively in Vernon. Plus, think of the jobs!
Out-of-town distribution would of course be out of the question, as that would eventually defeat the sewer plan's important purpose of recharging Vernon's aquifer with Vernon's treated wastewater exclusively. The water may no longer be at its best, but it's our water.
The Vernon TC could set an example by serving, and drinking, bottled Sparkling SCMUAgua as table water.
It will inevitably be passed into the Vernon sewer pipeline, then through the SCMUA treatment plant and, in the fullness of time, it will pass into the McAfee field and thus return to the aquifer as vintage "near drinking water quality"
SCMUAgua ( Appelation Contrôlée?)

Finally, a nod to the NJ Sierra Club and the local civic activists concerned about the Vernon water&sewer plan and the likelihood of its ruinous impact on this region's natural infrastructure systems.
Every region of our country contains unique types of aquatic ecosystems - some so rare that they are found only in part of a single state. Protecting them from being drained, paved over, and "developed" is a constant challenge.
These wetlands, ponds, vernal pools, lakes, and streams support a wide variety of life, supply clean drinking water, sustain imperiled species, provide natural flood control, and perform a host of other functions important to the continued wellbeing of both human and wildlife communities.

The preservation of that communal wellbeing, inadequately described as "quality of life," is more important to the character and prosperity of the town than a plan to boost development by pumping tons of water (and public money) into million-dollar miles of new sewer infrastructure.

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