[Home Page] [This Week] [Classifieds] [Legals] [Obituaries] [Newsstands] [Subscriptions] [Advertising] [Deadlines] [About Us] [FAQ] [Archives] [Community Links] [Contact Us]

Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, August 13, 2009

Killing the Berne sewer project would be a classic mistake

Many view ancient Rome as the height of Western civilization. After all, the seeds of our modern American democracy were planted there. The arts that flourished there shape our culture today.

A measure of civilization not often commented upon is one that was found in the Theatre of Pompey in Rome — a true mark of community. While we all know that is where Julius Caesar was assassinated, few of us know of the public latrine built there.

The latrine at the Theatre of Pompey, like many in Rome, as reconstructed by archaeologists, was huge, seating as many as 100, and serving both genders. Often, water was fed to the latrines from adjacent public baths. And like the baths, the latrines were community gathering places. Sea sponges, tied to sticks, were dipped into an open water channel in front of the latrines for cleansing. A network of sewers carried the refuse away.

The latrines were part of a complex and expertly engineered public water and sewer system that spread into Europe and the Middle East along with the Roman Empire.

With the so-called Dark Ages, much of this knowledge was lost. Disease spread along with sewage. As recently as the 1800s and 1900s, cholera epidemics plagued places where sewage wasn’t properly handled.

If we fast forward to our current time and place, we see that engineering has caught up with and even surpassed ancient Rome in an attempt to meet the challenges posed by modern-day pollutants as well as ages-old sewage.

We’re commenting on this measure of civilization and community because of the situation in the Helderberg Hilltown of Berne.

For a decade, the town has known that the hamlet of Berne is in trouble. Many of the houses in the hamlet were built more than a century ago, in an era when people didn’t have flushing toilets let alone daily showers, or dishwashers, or washing machines for their clothes.

The karst topography of the Hilltowns means that sewage and wastewater can travel rapidly to distant places because of the crevices in the limestone. Wells in Berne have been contaminated by substandard septic systems, and the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation found pollution in the Foxenkill, which runs through the hamlet.

The town was required to construct a public sewer system for the hamlet. It’s taken years to put together the government funding to make the project affordable to residents.

Just as the project is nearly in reach, two things have happened that could jeopardize it. The town board made a misstep last month by approving an increase — which would amount to about $4 more annually for a typical sewer district property — without the required petitioning.

The owners of 51 percent of the assessed value of property in the district have to approve the increase. This is a necessary safeguard in a democracy to make sure the will of the majority is followed.

We urge residents to sign the petition. It’s needed because the cost of the project, like most everything else, has increased over time. It has been five years since the estimate was first made. An additional federal grant of $600,000 will cover most of the increase.

The total $3.6 million for the sewer system would be unaffordable to individuals. The new estimated cost of $624 for a typical property for the first year is comparatively affordable. If those living in the nearly 90 homes in the district were to divide the cost among themselves, the project would, of course, become impossible.

The sewer system is required and it’s unlikely such funding could be put together again. Residents must seize the day.

At the same time, residents opposed to the increase in costs are circulating a second petition; some are opposed to the project itself.

One of the petitioners, Joseph Welsh, told our reporter Zach Simeone that eight or nine of his neighbors have working septic tanks.

“People with approved septics do not need new sewer districts, and the town is basically forcing us to have this happen,” said Welsh. “Just because some people can’t flush their toilet, it isn’t our problem.”

On the contrary, we believe it is a community problem. Some of those toilets are leaking into the Foxenkill and contaminating others’ drinking water.

Even if citizens can’t see themselves as part of a community — we admit $624 is a lot to pay if you feel you won’t benefit — we believe in the long run all sewer district residents will benefit from the project.

Septic systems that work now could fail later. Grease can clog them, roots from trees can rupture them, chemicals like bleach or lye can damage them, excessive water can overload them. The list goes on.

The life of a septic system is limited. Even septic tanks that are well-maintained release anaerobic bacteria to the drainage field, and the slime will clog the soil pores around the drain pipe, slowing percolation to where backup occurs.

Finally, houses are considered more valuable and sell more easily if they are on a public sewer system. It is viewed as hassle-free and safe for homeowners.

While we admire those with the gumption to use their First Amendment rights to petition their government, we believe this is not the petition to sign.

We urge sewer district residents to do as the Romans — no, we’re not asking those in the 90 hamlet homes to share a public latrine. But we’re asking you to think of yourselves as part of a community, building a system that will serve you and your neighbors well, and will serve future generations too. You’ll be protecting your own health and the health of the town.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

[Return to Home Page]