On an average day, the plant handles roughly 60 million gallons—entering via a gravity-fed 108-inch diameter pipe beneath Merrick Road and passing through a series of machinery and biological processes that, in a nutshell, separate the solids from the liquids before pumping the treated wastewater through an outflow pipe into the Atlantic Ocean, 2.5 miles off Jones Beach. The solid byproduct, dewatered sludge, is shipped to a landfill in Virginia, while a percentage of the methane gas produced during treatment helps power the plant.
Cedar Creek’s flow can swell to more than 100 mgd during heavy storms. Its sister plant, Bay Park, which pumps its treated wastewater directly into Reynolds Channel, handles another 60 mgd.
And the flow is nonstop.
As nasty as the work is, somebody’s got to do it, and Cedar Creek’s employees historically take a great deal of pride in the oftentimes thankless role they serve—as a crowded trophy case in the visitors’ waiting area of the plant’s main entrance is testament.
“We’re just as important as an EMT,” says Kenny Price, a current plant maintenance mechanic and longtime employee of Cedar Creek who works in the HVAC (heating, ventilating, air conditioning) section. “We’re just as important as a cop. You can’t do without them, you can’t do without us. Plant can’t run by itself. Absolutely can not run by itself.”
Price was one of a handful of current and former Cedar Creek employees who allowed the Press to use his name for this story. The majority of workers interviewed asked to remain anonymous, they say, for fear of retaliation and retribution from management. Those fears are well-justified, confirm legislators and union officials—despite these employees’ roles as whistleblowers and assurances from both parties of protection in the past.
The characterization of Cedar Creek’s 81 workers’ roles as “important” may be an understatement, however. Should the sewage treatment facility shut down, guess where all its contents will eventually end up.
“If the plant shuts down, there’s going to be a lot of—lot of—sewage in the streets, because it can’t go any place,” explains Ralph Spagnolo, Wantagh-Seaford Homeowners Association (WSHA) board member and retired 40-year county veteran of both plants. “So what’s going to happen? It’s going to back up… And when you’re talking about 100 million-gallon flow, it’s going to go into people’s basements, in the streets, pop [manhole] covers.”
Spagnolo, a plant maintenance supervisor at Cedar Creek upon his retirement in the late ’90s, was one of a handful of residents, watchdogs and union leaders who testified before county lawmakers at the Nassau Legislature’s February hearing. He stressed the importance of proper staffing at the plant, especially its maintenance department, and servicing the plant’s crucial parts—especially its methane valves and related systems.
The purpose of that “fact-finding mission,” as Legis. Norma Gonsalves (R-East Meadow), chair of the planning, development and environment committee, described it, was to determine ways to improve the maintenance of Cedar Creek and return it to its previous state-of-the-art condition. Among other concerns, legislators wanted to know why after five years since pressing Cedar Creek’s management to address staffing and health and safety issues at the plant, were many of the problems still not remedied.
Lawmakers also wanted to know why, despite approving budgets year after year for 100 employees, was the plant chronically undermanned—with a present headcount of 81. They grilled Nassau’s Superintendent of Sewage Plants, Unit Head of Environmental Operations Richard Cotugno and former Deputy Commissioner of the Department of Public Works (DPW) (current Chief Sanitary Engineer) Joseph Davenport for more than three hours.
Glaringly absent from the inquisition, complain watchdogs, residents and plant workers in attendance was Raymond Ribeiro, Nassau’s former DPW commissioner, now deputy to new Commissioner Shila Shah-Gavnoudias—who they say should also be held accountable. (Instead of sharing blame, he shares an office with Shah-Gavnoudias, who Mangano has put in charge of investigating dysfunction in the plant’s management.)
Spagnolo’s concerns to legislators were echoed by lifelong Seaford resident Phil Franco, who with Mark Salerno of Wantagh, co-chairs the watchdog Cedar Creek Health Risk Assessment Committee.
The two have been speaking out about the plant’s lack of preventive maintenance and manpower—and demanding answers from Cotugno, Davenport and Ribeiro (nicknamed “The Three Amigos” by some workers), Cedar Creek’s former Assistant Superintendent of Sewage Plant Robert Bazarewski, former DPW Commissioner Peter Gerbasi and former Deputy County Executives Michael Klein and Ian Siegel—for years. Siegel did not return a request for comment for this story. Gerbasi declined to comment.
Besides sludge in homeowners’ basements, Franco explains, there are other disastrous possibilities for workers and surrounding communities.
“My biggest concern is that the plant will explode,” he told the Press post-hearing at the Theodore Roosevelt Executive and Legislative Building in Mineola. “It would be a forced flow of sludge, of sewage, raw sewage, right into the community, starting at Cedar Creek Park and working its way out, like lava.
“That whole area could be considered a catastrophe area,” he added. “This could be our Katrina.”
WSHA President Ella Stevens, who also testified, agreed.
“I fear for my community and I fear for the people that work in that plant,” she said.