Nassau pols failing on Bay Park sewage plant

The Bay Park Sewage Treatment Plant was damaged The Bay Park Sewage Treatment Plant was damaged by superstorm Sandy. Millions of gallons of partially treated sewage from the plant are flushing each day into Reynolds Channel north of Long Beach. (Nov. 2, 2012) Photo Credit: Doug Kuntz

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Joye Brown Newsday columnist Joye Brown

Joye Brown has been a columnist for Newsday since 2006. She joined the newspaper in 1983 and has ...

We're closing in on the usual peak of storm season, and Nassau County lawmakers still can't agree on a plan to fix the decrepit Bay Park sewage treatment plant.

The stalemate is a continuation a long-running political fight between county Democrats and Republicans over borrowing, but the plant needs hundreds of millions of dollars more work than lawmakers have approved.

It's long past time to get moving.

But because we're also weeks away from the heat of re-election season for County Executive Edward Mangano and the entire county legislature, we're getting more posturing.

Recently, three Democratic lawmakers took to Facebook to defend themselves after a posting criticized their delegation -- listing every Democrat by name -- for blocking Mangano's effort to bond more than $700 million for sewer plant repairs.

It would have been better if lawmakers, Democrat and Republican alike, had called for public hearings on the state of the plant, what repairs were needed and where the county was going to find money to repair it.

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Time to use their power

The legislature clearly has that power.

And lawmakers would have done well to make use of it after Mangano requested the largest-ever capital bonding in Nassau County history -- a total of about $1 billion, including for the sewage projects.

Where's that money going? Does the county have to borrow that much? Will the federal government, given that Bay Park sustained significant damage during superstorm Sandy, pay all of it back?

Mangano's aides have said that they intend to seek 90 percent federal reimbursement -- and the key word here is reimbursement, because the Federal Emergency Management Agency usually pays after work has been completed.

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But the sense of urgency in dealing with Bay Park seems to be getting lost in the passion of politics.

On Friday, Democratic lawmakers circulated an email saying they intended to seek an advisory committee to oversee spending on repairs at Bay Park and other sewer matters.

Mangano went one better, zapping out a news release saying he had already ordered creation of a wastewater management committee himself.

Nassau does not need dueling committees, although there is value to having residents and experts involved.

What it needs is more effective governing.

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Is there a better way than bonding to secure funding for Bay Park fixes? That question needs to be asked and explored.

And if bonding is the only way, what's the remediation plan? What's the schedule? When and if FEMA reimbursement comes through, will it be enough to retire the bonds, so that taxpayers won't have to pay the interest costs?

A hearing, or even a committee, could open up the process. But it will take Mangano and lawmakers to see it through.

The stakes are high.

Bay Park serves 40 percent of the county's homes and businesses -- properties that, by Suffolk County standards, are lucky enough to have access to a sewer system.

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Vital resources

In Suffolk, economic development in too many municipalities is hamstrung because the majority of wastewater in the county flows to septic systems.

That makes Bay Park -- and Cedar Creek, Nassau County's other wastewater management plant -- significant and necessary resources for Nassau and Long Island.

Bay Park, which was built in the 1940s, was the most severely damaged wastewater system on the East Coast because of Sandy. In some communities, the system's failure turned toilets into geysers of untreated sewage.

The most recent spillage of partly treated sewage into Reynolds Channel was in the spring. County officials agree the plant is hanging on by a thread.

Instead of infighting, lawmakers ought to be debating key issues, specifically whether repairs ought to include extending the plant's outfall pipe beyond the long-burdened channel -- which never "flushed" the way the plant's builders believed it would -- into the Atlantic Ocean.

Storm season's around the corner.

Tick, tock.

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