Olive’s Town Board, cautiously and appropriately, is
moving forward into the no-cost, no-risk design phase for
a proper septic treatment facility in Boiceville. Given that
DEP funding is available, and given the ongoing difficulties
of maintaining a working system for the hamlet’s big
user, the Onteora school complex, they’re clearly doing
the right thing.
Cross into Shandaken though, and things appear to be going
terribly wrong. The town board is under fire from Phoenicia’s
residents for many aspects of its handling of the matter.
We share many of the concerns voiced by residents and business
owners. And we also share some of the concerns voiced by both
sides that not all the information being provided is complete
or adequate, or always truthfully presented.
We want to see Phoenicia evolve into a vital commercial center.
We strongly favor centralized septic treatment for the hamlet,
and have taken no other position since 1997. We believe the
current design is too small to accommodate future growth here,
though we understand that with an amended SPEDES permit, these
plants can be expanded. But the critical question is “who
pays to operate these plants? On that, our answer is the City
of New York is the responsible party. The plant is needed
for one reason only; to maintain the purity of the water entering
the Ashokan reservoir. This is not Phoenicia’s problem.
It’s DEP’s problem, and it’s one they have
with the federal government, not with the residents of Phoenicia
or anywhere else in the watershed. If they wish to avoid the
insane cost of filtration, they need to insure that the water
entering the reservoir is free of human waste. Hardly any
rocket science involved here at all.
Under Phoenicia is a patchwork of ancient, lousy septic systems
along with some newer and better ones. Everyone who knows
Phoenicia knows why these systems haven’t failed generations
ago. It’s because every 10 or so years the hamlet floods
and every ancient cesspool gets a bottom-to-top total flush,
with whatever it contains washing straight into the Ashokan.
And when the floodwaters recede, they’re clean enough
to keep functioning until the next natural pump-out. Will
they fail eventually? Opinions differ. But regardless, Phoenicia’s
future and the quality of the Ashokan’s water are both
tied to the same solution: adequate septic treatment. Let’s
see, 9,000,000 users downstate, 280 hookups in Phoenicia.
Gosh, where should we look for the money?
We view the failure to resolve the question of who pays Operating
and Maintenance costs as a huge political failure here in
the watershed. We see it as a failure of vision, mostly on
the part of the Coalition of Watershed Towns. They manage
to advocate with DEP on all manner of less important things,
but on the critical question of O & M costs for whatever
wastewater treatment is needed, they’ve dropped the
ball. This should be the #1 issue in the watershed now, but
for some reason our elected officials can’t seem to
But theirs isn’t the only failure of vision in play.
Sewage plants are designed to work big to keep O & M costs
low; small is not cost efficient. We still think Boiceville
and Phoenicia should have one plant, not two, and that pumping
effluent the distance between them is hardly a technological
challenge. We also think that the near-zero cost O & M
alternative, a patchwork of small Constructed Wetlands, was
dumped in Phoenicia far too early, despite nothing but positive
feedback from DEP’s engineers.
At this point we don’t have all the right answers and
we’re not sure anyone does. Our hamlets need wastewater
treatment, almost as much as the City needs that wastewater
treated. But any claim the City can’t pay those costs
is as hollow as the claim that any portion of them rightly
belong with us. They don’t. And if people across 1,600
square miles of watershed start speaking with one voice on
the subject, they won’t.