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Elmont residents demand water tower repairs

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On Sept. 21, a small crowd of Elmont residents led a new chant — “No paint, no peace!” — as they gathered in front of the Elmont water tower for a rally calling for repairs to be made to the structure.

The tower has not been repaired since the 1990s, when it was under the control of the Jamaica Water Supply Company, Joe Corbisiero, the director of plant operations for the Water Authority of Western Nassau County, previously told the Herald, and it is now rusted, with blue paint chips falling into residents’ yards.

“Our water tower has become an eyesore, and gives the impression of blight in a community with an average median [income] of $100,000 per household,” Dwayne Palmer wrote in a letter to County Legislator Carrié Solages in July, after asking the water authority several times to repair it. He added that the tower is one of the first structures people see when they enter Nassau County from Queens, and “leaves the impression that Elmont is a community that is uncared for.”

Michael Tierney, superintendent of the water authority, also said there is “no argument that [the water tower] needs a full rehabilitation” at a board of directors meeting after the protest.

But repairs to the water tower, which were originally scheduled to be made in 2021, have been delayed until 2023 or 2024 due to legislation that requires water districts to remove 1,4-dioxane and perfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, from the drinking water supply. These chemicals are considered potential carcinogens, and have been found in high levels in water authority wells. The system has six wells with levels of dioxane that exceed the 1-part-per-billion standard, and 11 wells with levels of PFAS above the 10-parts-per-trillion standard, water authority Chairman John Ryan explained in a letter to Solages on July 10, which will ultimately cost an estimated $90 million to mitigate.

The utility has already spent $6 million on PFAS treatments in Elmont, Tierney said, and has invested a total of $67 million in the community.

“The treatment side has been taking a lot of our capital funds,” Corbisiero told the Herald. Repairs to the water tower, meanwhile, will cost $3.5 million to $4 million, because the authority will have to harden the rest of the system, protect the site and ensure that there is an adequate water supply to take the tank offline for about 15 months — a difficult task when the water authority also has to take other wells offline to remove chemicals.

“This is a big job,” Tierney said. “It’s not as simple as painting it.”

Still, Elmont residents want to know when they can expect routine maintenance. Members of a group called Elmont Strong — formed in June to “restore, protect and conserve” the community and “make change happen through beautification, public relations efforts and opportunities for continuous community involvement” — organized the rally and created a Change.org petition two weeks ago, acknowledging that they understand that there are water treatment mandates, but adding that “waiting three years to clean and paint the Elmont water tower is unacceptable” and “we want safe drinking water and a painted tower that says ‘Elmont’ now.” The petition had more than 1,000 signatures as of last Friday.

In a letter to Tierney on Sept. 16, Solages wrote that residents do not understand why maintenance has not been done in Elmont, while it has been completed in other communities. In addition to Elmont and sections of Franklin Square, the water authority serves Bellerose, Floral Park, New Hyde Park, Stewart Manor, South Floral Park and parts of Garden City.

“Residents believe that it is unacceptable that the Elmont community has been paying for upgrades and repairs to equipment and water towers in other areas, while they are now being told to wait an additional three to four years for scheduled upgrades and maintenance to be completed in Elmont,” Solages wrote, asking Tierney why “other communities have seen upgrades during that time, while Elmont has seen none.”

At last week’s rally, a gathering of nearly two dozen protesters, Allison Baffi said she lived in Franklin Square not too long ago, and didn’t realize how bad the condition of Elmont’s water tower was, which a friend, Jada Fernandez, said was unhealthy for the water stored inside.

“Elmont deserves better,” Fernandez said as protesters chanted “No Flint here!,” a reference to Flint, Mich., where lead from aging pipes leached into the water, poisoning over 100,000 residents.

In Nassau County, the Health Department inspects all water distribution tanks twice a year.

Meanwhile, State Assemblywoman Michaelle Solages, a Democrat from Elmont who attended the rally, said that area residents pay some of the highest water bills in the region, and that the repairs to the water tower are simply routine maintenance.

“They’re not doing what they should be doing,” Solages said of the water authority, adding that the tower’s condition has “become a dangerous situation.”

Tierney later agreed to meet with Palmer and the other members of Elmont Strong, and said at the board meeting that water authority officials would start drafting plans for the repairs. Once they are approved by the county Health Department and the utility has enough wells available to begin the work, Tierney said, “We will get on this project.”