Terence Hopper is struggling to turn a rusty valve atop a three-story-high silo of toxic sludge at Nassau County’s Cedar Creek Water Pollution Control Plant in Wantagh.
Hopper’s face twists and grimaces as he attempts to spin the steering wheel-shaped ring to shut off what is a constant stream of methane gas pouring out around us—the same deadly fumes recently blamed for their role in the deaths of at least 25 coal miners in West Virginia, despite that mine’s owner repeatedly being cited for problems with its ventilation system.
At first, the wheel spins effortlessly, as if it’s not even connected—then seizes up and jams. Hopper tries three more times, grunting with each tug. It won’t budge.
This reporter gives it a whirl (or tries to), pushing and pulling in both directions. Rust and chipped paint flake apart in my hands, while the vapor continues to flood out, burning the inside of my nose and scratching my throat.
“Won’t budge,” I say, coughing. “It’s frozen solid.”
I decide to hold my breath.
“None of them have been serviced, maintained, or even looked at in years,” says Hopper, head of plant maintenance at Cedar Creek, stone-faced. The 50-year-old’s demeanor fluctuates wildly when speaking about the plant’s many issues. He’s passionate, emotional, excitable. Frustrated. “And when I say in years, I’m saying a minimum of five years that they’ve even been looked at.”
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Records reviewed by the Press indicate the valve—and other parts of this gigantic chamber, called a digester—have been listed throughout internal county memos as “not operational” since at least 2005.
“Could they get away with not having an explosion?” asks Hopper, seagulls screeching in the background. “Sure they could. Could it be to the point where somebody’s passing by down below and they’re smoking a cigarette, or a truck passing by on the road over here, and the sparks from the sparkplugs—could that ignite it? Sure it could. On a nice, calm day, if the gas is just rolling out there, sure.”
Yet inoperable methane gas valves, as catastrophic a disaster as they could cause, are not the only potential tragedy waiting to happen at the nearly 40-year-old facility, a Press investigation has discovered. A series of tours and visits to the plant, interviews with watchdogs, county legislators, residents, union officials, current and former plant employees, and analysis of reams and reams of documents—including e-mails, memos, staff meeting minutes and purchase orders—paint a picture of a facility in disastrous condition that is nearing its breaking point.
In addition, they portray a management team that has for years either denied or ignored requests for critical parts and equipment, additional manpower and necessary overtime required to complete such tasks and repeated warnings of impending disaster potentially arising if those requests and repairs were not fulfilled. They chronicle the plight of a maintenance staff stripped to its bone and prevented from performing regular preventive maintenance—the equivalent of changing the oil in your car—to keep the plant’s intrinsic, multi-million dollar network of taxpayer-funded machinery up and running, as well as the necessary “emergency” repairs and services resulting from that negligence. Consequently, Cedar Creek has been transformed from a once state-of-the-art facility into a plant now barely operating on life support, plagued with multiple key pieces of equipment out of service, chronic systemic breakdowns and the morale of staff at an all-time low.
What’s more, the management’s negligence has increased the risk of tragedy—such as an explosion that could level parts of the surrounding communities—for Wantagh and Seaford residents, the 1,000-plus schoolchildren of Seaford Harbor and Mandalay elementary schools (the two closest buildings to the plant) and the entire South Shore of Long Island. It has also cost Nassau taxpayers tremendously, records show. Either intentionally or by default, this mismanagement made an easy argument for millions of dollars in taxpayers’ funds to be steered to outside contractors, who benefited handsomely from the deteriorating conditions and perform much of the consequential repair work—at exponentially higher costs for taxpayers, say lawmakers and watchdogs.
First exposed five years ago by the Press in a cover story [“Toxic Offender,” Sept. 22, 2005] that sparked a hearing before the Nassau County Legislature and promises of remediation under the administration of former Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi—remediations which never occurred—the alarming conditions of Cedar Creek are once again no longer a secret.
Following on the heels of a notice from state health and safety regulators outlining 26 violations at the plant—22 deemed “Serious”—the Nassau County Legislature held a “fact-finding” hearing into the troubled facility in February, which resulted in a loaded report with several key findings sent to new County Executive Ed Mangano. Among them: a lack of preventive maintenance, shortage of employees and endemic failures on the part of plant management—reminiscent of the hazards and violations exposed back in 2005.
Yet in many cases, the Press has found, the conditions at the plant are much more severe than five years ago—evident of a blatant disregard for the health and safety of employees, the public at large, as well as the environment, charge critics. And despite recent attempts by Mangano to address these problems—including an April 15 announcement of his “First Step,” an additional $2 million for new equipment for the plant this year and fast-tracking the hiring of an additional 10 employees—some observers say it’s simply not enough.
One thing’s certain: The situation at Cedar Creek has actually been getting worse in recent weeks.
Just four days prior to Mangano’s news conference, the Press has learned, Cedar Creek weathered an emergency that longtime veterans of the plant describe as unprecedented, resulting in a wastewater spill within its walls and large quantities of methane gas released into its unsuspecting surrounding communities. Another near-catastrophe took place in mid-March, when a 20-foot-high arched methane gas pipe collapsed—but didn’t spark or explode—and lay twisted in a dangerous situation for weeks, according to workers.
“Every stage of this plant, every section, has failures in one stage or another,” Hopper tells the Press. “In my 31 years of experience that I have in the maintenance section, I have never seen this plant as bad as it is.
“Things are catastrophically failing here,” he continues. “It’s not getting better, it’s getting worse. It’s snowballing.”
DOWN THE DRAIN
Opened in 1973, Nassau’s Cedar Creek sewage plant, tucked away behind the scenic waterfront picnic areas and playgrounds of county-run Cedar Creek Park bordering Wantagh and Seaford, performs a critically necessary function for Long Islanders. The 70-acre facility is permitted by the New York State (NYS) Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) to receive and treat up to 72 million gallons per day (mgd) of sewage and wastewater sent from the drains and toilets of countless homes, businesses and hospitals spanning the Suffolk County border on the east to Freeport on the west and parts of the North Shore.
Flush the toilet pretty much anywhere within these parameters and its contents will end up in some shape or form at this plant. And we’re not talking just human bodily waste. Take a bath or a shower, the drain water ends up here. Dump some grease or cooking oil down the kitchen sink, or hold a bathroom funeral for some pet goldfish, the fluids and deceased end up here, too. Oils, paints, shampoos, toothpaste, mucus, blood, condoms, tampons, syringes, toilet paper, clothing—even human fetuses, say workers.