Westerlo to seek grant for cleaning public water

The Enterprise — H. Rose Schneider

Town board member Joseph Boone, center, reads a negative State Environmental Quality Review declaration — meaning impact would be minimal — in order to move forward in applying for a grant that would help fund filtration of bromomethane from Westerlo’s public water supply. From left are town council members Anthony Sherman, Richard Filkins, Amie Burnside, Boone, Town Clerk Kathleen Spinnato, Supervisor Richard Rapp, and Code Enforcement Officer Edwin Lawson.

WESTERLO — The town of Westerlo is seeking a grant to fund filtration of a chemical from its drinking water after bromomethane was found in the town’s water treatment facility, which serves those in the Westerlo hamlet. The source of the toxic chemical is unknown.

Users of Westerlo’s public water system were notified on March 14 that sampling of the water system on Jan. 31 and Feb. 21 found bromomethane levels of 12 parts per billion in the water, according to a letter sent to residents of the water district from the town. The state’s Department of Health has set a standard of 5 parts per billion being acceptable in drinking water.

The letter also stated that the water is safe for drinking, cooking, and bathing, and that the levels did not “constitute an immediate health hazard.” The letter goes on to say that the levels in the drinking water are less of a health concern and more indicative of a need to find the source of contamination.

At the Aug. 7 town board meeting, Westerlo’s code enforcement officer Edwin Lawson said that it is suspected that the bromomethane was created after another contaminant reacted with the chlorine treatment of the drinking water.

“There is a whole myriad of things that could cause it,” Lawson said.

Erin Silk, a state health department spokesperson, said in an emailed response to Enterprise questions that the town made the required public notice and is currently working to address the issue.

“The short-term exposure to this chemical at the levels detected in the water supply does not constitute an immediate health hazard,” she said.

Silk later clarified, “Concerns would be for chronic exposure — repeated or continuous for many years up to a lifetime. Exposures well less than this, or that occur sporadically over a period of time are what’s referred to as short-term in this context.”

A “human health fact sheet” from the federal Environmental Protection Agency says that bromomethane “is used primarily as a fumigant in soil to control fungi, nematodes and weeds (65%) and in the space fumigation of food commodities and storage facilities (15%).”

At the same town board meeting, town grant-writer Nicole Ambrosio discussed a number of grants she was working on that would fund town projects. One of the grants is through the state’s Water Infrastructure Improvement Act, which would offer funding of up to 60 percent of the town’s implementation of a new filtration system to remove the bromomethane, she said.

The cost of the a filtration system has not yet been determined, Ambrosio later told The Enterprise. An engineering firm is currently estimating what the cost will be, but she said the town was looking at every option for funding so that it wouldn’t be borne by the residents of the water district. She said that there are between 80 and 90 households in the district.

In order to submit the grant, the town board issued a negative State Environmental Quality Review declaration — meaning the filtration system’s effect on the environment would be minimal — and reviewed a statement that the town is not building on any historic locations.

Townspeople seated in the galley noted that a report from the town’s water board could have kept residents updated on the matter. The town board said that a chairperson for the water board has not yet been found; the position has been empty since the prior chairman, William Bichteman, was voted off the town board in November.

Water system history

Bichteman told The Enterprise last November that the water system was implemented in 2005 — before he was on the board. The district still owes a debt to the town, he said, but added that the town has been using some cost-cutting measures to reduce this.

“The properties were gerrymandered to take people out of the district,” he said at the time, leading to high rates for users. He added that the bond payments increase every year and are now in the range of $260 annually for users.

In 2015, Congressman Paul Tonko spoke with Bichteman and a number of other local officials about water infrastructure issues. Bichteman said that Westerlo was operating a system it couldn’t afford, and the town was taking on costs that should have been borne by residents of the district who themselves could not afford upgrades.

“We currently owe the town for upgrades to comply with regulations,” Bichtemen said at the time, “which are coming out of taxpayers outside of the district. They’re not happy about it.”

He also went over the history of the system, explaining that a drought in the early 1960s caused the hand-dug wells in Westerlo to dry up. The Hannay family, which owns a hose reel company in town, “allowed an over-ground line to be run from house to house” with water from the Hannay well, said Bichteman. “A farmer, Ralph Goodfellow, let people on the south side use his water. When winter came, so the lines wouldn’t freeze, they were buried underground.

“The cooperative system was plagued with problems; there was not enough money to meet health-department standards,” said Bichteman, so the new system was built for over a million dollars.

There is no way to sell water to raise funds because the rural area is sparsely populated. “We’re in a crack here we can’t get out of,” said Bichteman. “If we raised the rate, there’d be a march on the town hall. They’d burn the place.”

A further problem has developed, he said: “No one wants to build in the hamlet.” Because of the cost of the water system, foreclosed properties sit vacant while residents and businesses, instead, go outside of the hamlet and drill wells for their water.

“We took a bold step last year,” said Bichteman in 2015. “We changed the structure of billing...The county is now paying for our water system. I can’t see any way out of it.”

Health concerns

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, bromomethane is a colorless, mostly odorless gas, that is most often manmade and stored in sealed containers. Leaking containers may cause it to escape into the air or possibly pass into soil and dissolve into underground water.

People may develop headaches or nausea from breathing in the gas, or have difficulty breathing if a large amount is inhaled. Muscle tremors, seizures, and kidney damage are also possible that in serious cases can be fatal, according to the CDC.

Ingestion of bromomethane is expected to cause stomach irritation, based on studies in animals, according to the CDC. It may also irritate the skin. The chemical is not classified as a carcinogen based on studies. Medical tests can be done to detect bromomethane in the body, but it is difficult because it does not stay in the body very long, according to the CDC.

Over forty utilities report contamination of the chemical in New York State, according to the advocacy group the Environmental Working Group. The highest level found between 2010 and 2015 was 12.3 parts per billion at a trailer park serving 63 people in Indiana, according to the organization.

Other grants

Ambrosio also said that an $800,000 grant through the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority was moving forward. Engineers and architects have been examining the town highway garage so that the grant could fund repairs for the building. A major change, she said, would be adding trusses to the roof so that it would no longer be flat and allow precipitation to collect there.

“We’re right now in the ‘approval pending’ box,” she said, of the application.

The grant is filed under “new construction,” said Ambrosio, which she suspects is due to the proposed trusses. She said the timeline of construction and renovation work depends on what time of year the funds are awarded.

Efforts to fix the highway garage have been underway for years, but funding has been scrutinized by the public in the past, with a $2.75 million project being overwhelmingly voted down in 2015.

Jill Falchi, of the Capital District Regional Planning Commission, also said that the town has completed its fourth action item to qualify for a $35,000 grant through the New York State Energy and Research Development Authority that would fund an energy-saving town initiative; the action item has been submitted and is pending approval.

Ambrosio told The Enterprise after the meeting that the final action item involves proving that the town has upgraded its energy efficiency in the past by over 10 percent. The other three action items are creating a unified solar permit, training the code enforcement officer in energy-saving practices, and benchmarking energy usage.

Other business

In addition, the town board:

— Heard an account from town historian Dennis Fancher of the headstone of a Westerlo child, the daughter of Casper Weinberger, being found in a Guilderland backyard, as well as his findings into Weinberger’s life.  Weinberger immigrated from Germany to Westerlo; he had three wives and many children dying tragically young. Fancher also said he had found a graveless headstone for a Civil War soldier, James Holmes, who died in Andersonville, the site of a notorious Confederate prisoner-of-war camp in Georgia;

— Decided to further discuss a peddler’s ordinance, which would be known as Local Law 3 of 2018, at the next workshop meeting, on Aug. 21, with the intention of scheduling a public hearing after the board’s regular September meeting;

— Heard an update from town board member Amie Burnside, who also serves as the chairwoman of the Hometown Heroes Committee, that the committee has been successful in putting up banners of local veterans and intends to host a closing ceremony on Nov. 17;

— Heard from town board member Joseph Boone that the town’s week-long summer youth program had lower attendance than last year’s first program, but was still successful;

— Approved a resolution to have the supervisor approve Westerlo’s participation with other Hilltowns in a household hazardous waste day on Aug. 25, pending knowledge that the cost will be less than $1,500 with state reimbursement; and

— Heard a suggestion from Westerlo resident Diane Sefcik during the public comment period that the board should participate in ethics training, citing examples of unethical behavior.


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