Two more years needed for Riverhead’s sewer work

Waste water being aerated in one of the two 750,000-gallon treatment tanks at the Riverhead Sewer District plant. (Credit: Paul Squire)
Waste water being aerated in one of the two 750,000-gallon treatment tanks at the Riverhead Sewer District plant. (Credit: Paul Squire)

A $23.5 million upgrade to Riverhead’s sewer system — which was to have been completed last winter — could take at least two years longer than expected, and the town has applied for an extension of the project completion date from January 2014 to April 2016.

In the meantime, the town is seeking additional funds from the county to help pay for the cost of the upgrade. The town doesn’t have the money. 

The upgrade is mandated because the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency increased its nitrogen discharge standards in 2007, requiring that the plant remove a higher percentage of nitrogen from treated effluent that’s pumped into Peconic Bay.

The extension application is currently pending before the state Department of Environmental Conservation and the DEC public comment period on that application remains open until Nov. 7.

“It will get extended,” Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter said. “We’re confident.”

After federal regulations were strengthened, forcing the upgrade, the district received an $8 million grant from Suffolk County for the project in September 2013. The district is approved to bond the project through the state Environmental Facilities Corporation, which offers no-interest loans during construction and 2 to 3 percent interest rates after the bonds are issued and the project goes into repayment mode, Mr. Walter said.

The town also received $2 million in state money and has about $4 million in sewer district reserve funding that can be put toward the upgrade, according to Frank Russo of H2M, the town’s consulting engineers on the project.

With the sewer district on the hook for the remaining balance — close to $10 million — Mr. Walter said he hopes to keep costs down by appealing to Suffolk County yet again.

The county has a sewer rate stabilization fund that would cap the tax rate increase within the sewer district at 3 percent, with the county picking up the difference, should the town be approved for those funds.

“We’re working with the county executive for other sewer stabilization funding,” Mr. Walter said. “I’m cautiously optimistic that the rate of increase in the sewer tax won’t go above 3 percent in repaying the bond.”

The Town Board authorized the bonding of $8.96 million for the project earlier this year and awarded contracts for construction of the plant in February. RJ Industries in Bethpage won a construction and plumbing contract for $17.8 million, Plainview’s Welbach Electric earned a $3.8 million bid and HVAC work went to Ahrens Associates of Amity Harbor for nearly $200,000.

In February, Mr. Russo told the Town Board that without the sewer stabilization fund money, the total increase — including both sewer rent and taxes — would boost taxes for property owners in the district by 18.24 percent, or an additional $113 for someone with property assessed at $50,000. Only property owners in the Riverhead Sewer District — which comprises nearly 2,400 downtown area parcels, of over 16,000 townwide — would be affected by the tax increase.

Mr. Walter said the town couldn’t proceed with the project before this year because it didn’t have the money.

The town first made applications to the state in 2010 for the sewer improvement project, but since the town couldn’t fund it, the state had put the review of the project on the “back burner” until last year, sewer district superintendent Michael Reichel said.

A state Environmental Notice Bulletin listed on Oct. 8 notes the application is complete. Mr. Reichel said the finalization of the contractors’ schedule for the project triggered the public hearing notice.

The current sewer plant was built in 1937 and has been upgraded twice, most recently in 1999 for about $9 million.

Written comments on the DEC application can be sent to Susan Ackerman, NYSDEC Region 1 Headquarters, SUNY at Stony Brook, 50 Circle Road, Stony Brook, NY 11790.

Written comments can also be sent by email to [email protected]

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