Memo: Cuts would harm water-safety testing

Sufolk County Legislator Ed Romaine speaks during a Sufolk County Legislator Ed Romaine speaks during a meeting of the Suffolk Legislature, Health Committee at the William H. Rogers Legislature building in Hauppauge. (May 3, 2012) Photo Credit: Newsday/Thomas A. Ferrara

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Planned cuts to the well-drilling staff of Suffolk's Water Resources unit would "severely impact" the county's ability to operate a "safe, sustainable and cost-efficient" water-testing program and also jeopardize state grants, according to an internal Health Services Department memo.

Reducing staff from five to two would affect a series of existing water-quality programs, said the memo, which Newsday obtained. As a result of the reduction, "it is unlikely we could perform any significant drilling" with the two remaining staffers, said the memo.

Legis. Ed Romaine (R-Center Moriches) is preparing a resolution that would use existing funds from a quarter-percent county sales tax, known as 477 funds, to finance nine jobs in the division through the end of the year. Layoffs are scheduled to start July 1. Some $300,000 would be required to restore the jobs through year's end, Romaine said.

"There would be no drilling," he said. "We would be blind to the threats to our groundwater. This is a major threat."

In a statement, Health Services Department Commissioner James Tomarken said, "In spite of impending layoffs, county staff will continue to conduct comprehensive well-drilling activities and the Department of Health Services will ask for occasional support from other county departments when it is needed."

He said the department plans to explore "new ways to leverage state and private resources, for example, charging polluting parties for the expenses encumbered by the county" to offset the impact of layoffs. Tomarken added public drinking water quality would be "unaffected by changes to the groundwater unit."

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Among the findings in the March 22 memo from and to staff division heads in the Health Services Department:

The unit would not be able to perform all drilling and sampling required under a state Department of Environmental Conservation pesticide monitoring program, jeopardizing a $150,000 annual grant.

Special investigations such as the county's digging and monitoring of 10 wells under compost/mulch piles and former manufactured gas plants could be impacted.

A $20,000 contract to investigate three Suffolk County Water Authority supply wells for possible contamination by chlorinated solvents could be affected.Legislative requests for groundwater probes in districts could be curtailed.Programs to drill and monitor wells with the U.S. Geological Survey could be impacted.

Vanessa Baird-Streeter, a spokeswoman for County Executive Steve Bellone, said, "We are looking into and performing the analysis of 477 funding" for the affected jobs, but cautioned, "We cannot tap into reserves to fund these functions." The jobs must be funded from recurring revenue "since the cost associated will be recurring expenses."

With Sarah Crichton

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