Friday, 27 April 2012 00:00Much of the map of Nassau County was drawn by sewage and garbage. Villages were hastily thrown together and incorporated, city charters were drawn up, special districts created and everything was rearranged either to keep sewage plants and incinerators out or to keep the highly-profitable enterprises in.
Sewage plants, incinerators, subways, turnpikes, sports arenas, bridges and bus lines are licenses for local agencies to print money, until the equipment ages or needs expansion. All of these things, and almost every water supply district in Nassau County, started out as private enterprises or as public investments managed by private contractors, until the low-hanging profits were picked off. Then, as service deteriorates and rates go up, the public itself steps up and sets things right.
Repairing and replacing what others built for us is a problem everywhere. Infrastructures are in crisis at the worst possible economic and political moment.
The question of what happens when Nassau County residents flush has been with us for a century, mostly behind the scenes because the subject isn’t pleasant and because big money is involved. Nassau County’s south shore sewage treatment plants serve about 85 percent of the county, but there are ten other smaller plants operated by districts or municipalities in a system allowed to survive past World War II for reasons lost or kept unclear.
The county had nothing to do with sewage or water until the 1930s. Dozens of communities were incorporating and town governments were losing control of tax revenue and any ability to coordinate anything. Sewage plant operators were showing up at village meetings waiving contracts. A silent moratorium on new villages was imposed by the Republican Party while a county charter could be negotiated, setting out everyone’s turf once and for all. It was agreed, that going forward, the county would take responsibility for wastewater and drainage. In 1941, to keep overflowing cesspools from contaminating aquifers, the county legislature decided it had to go into the sewage treatment plant business.
There were still people around who remembered cholera in Brooklyn when the aquifer there was spoiled, leading directly to Brooklyn’s attachment to Greater New York City.
Suffolk didn’t centralize sewage. Today much of that county is dotted by hundreds of “package” sewage plants put up by private developers, discharging into the ground, many aging and leaking. Hundreds of separate problems.
By 1947, the county could finally act and construct a plant, but by then there were many more homes near the chosen site, at Bay Park on Hewlett Bay. Protestors were showing up regularly in Mineola. County Executive J. Russel Sprague mailed a personal appeal to 25,000 frustrated and angry homeowners to drop all lawsuits. There had been seven little public sewage plants and a row of private clubs sending effluent into the little waterways off the bay. They were all replaced by the one plant. By 1952, the E. coli count around the bay had been reduced by 99.999 percent.
Two decades later, when the second giant county sewage plant was constructed at Cedar Creek in Wantagh, the building was constructed to resemble a corporate park, with hundreds of trees, a circular driveway and even a fountain. The project was part of a massive parkland and tidal wetland reclamation project. The Cedar Creek plant didn’t put effluent into the bay; it pumped everything to Bay Park where it was shipped out to sea and dumped. (The mantra of the ’60s: “The solution to pollution is dilution.”) That wasn’t such a great idea, but it represented the best and most forward thinking at the time.
Nassau County no longer strives to be the best or the first.
Now that Morgan Stanley has millions in the game, County Executive Mangano will likely get to privatize operation of the county’s sewage treatment system, even if the revenue is a fraction of what it cost to build those plants in the first place.
The real question isn’t about sewage. It’s about everything. It’s all going away, one piece at a time. We need to tear things down to the tires and figure out a system of local governance and decision-making that will work in this century.
Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org