It’s a vicious cycle. The lack of personnel feeds the inability to perform necessary preventive maintenance, which then causes more equipment to break down, more taxpayers’ monies to be spent and more risks to employees, the public and the environment.
“Preventive maintenance is the most important thing,” explains Price. “Parts, simple oil change or a bearing change—you go from something that, for a minimum amount of money—now you have to change a multi-million dollar piece of equipment.”
HOUSE OF HORRORS
The Press accompanied Hopper and Legis. Dennis Dunne (R-Seaford) on a recent DPW-authorized tour of the tiny city that is Cedar Creek. There are dozens of buildings and sewage-related structures on the extensive compound. Each building bears a letter of the alphabet; some carry two. And each houses a process unique to the overall complex. The site also includes a vast network of tunnels, which make up about 90 percent of the compound and connect every building.
Workers man countless machines, parts and equipment. There are engines the size of locomotives, storage tanks the size of barns and a giant golf-ball shaped sphere more than 100 feet in circumference used to store methane. There is an infinite amount of hazards, even when the plant is running up to par. It is a sewage plant, after all.
“We work with chemicals that could make you blind,” explains Price in an interview at the Press offices. “We work with God-knows-what kind of diseases in the sewage. And you’re working on a piece of equipment, and you’ve got a rubber glove on, and you’re sticking your hand inside something where there’s syringes, razor blades, God-knows-what. It’s disgusting. It’s a really disgusting job.”
But besides the sewage, there are the risks associated with operating and maintaining heavy machinery. There’s the danger of getting zapped by high-voltage electrical wires. One wrong step or slip and a worker can find himself at the bottom of a disease-ridden pit, covered in human feces and headed toward a gigantic twirling rotor. (A similar situation happened to one worker several months ago.)
Too bad that for the past several years, besides preventive maintenance, Cedar Creek’s management has also been neglecting even basic health and safety safeguards for its 81 employees—further increasing the risk of tragedy and further contributing to the destruction of the plant’s crucial processes.
Guard rails are missing near deep pits. Grates are popped open, devoid of mandated warning signs. A fire extinguisher is used as a doorstop. A state-of-the-art, onsite laboratory—crucial to daily and periodic testing of the wastewater that’s being pumped out into the ocean off Field Six at Jones Beach State Park—lies in ruin, being slowly stripped of its equipment and dismantled.
There’s no safety team. There’s no safety technician. Until recently, there was no state-required confined space training implemented, which further exacerbates the deterioration of the plant, since without it, employees can’t enter certain areas to begin repairs.
Nor does the plant presently have a working communications system for employees in times of emergency, as Dunne demonstrated in one building.
“There is none existing. They use walkie-talkie radios,” he tells the Press, picking up the receiver of a phone hanging on the wall. “If you’re overcome by the fumes and you go to get help, and you pick up this phone, there’s no dial tone, there’s nothing. This is a dead phone. The whole, entire phone system is down in this plant.”
But even walkie-talkies, he says, don’t work in certain parts of the plant. Workers tell the Press they’re forced to try their personal cell phones, which also get spotty service, especially when they’re calling from within the Creek’s underground tunnels.
Throughout multiple buildings during what became an eight-hour tour of the complex, the Press observed machinery in various states of disarray and disrepair. Wires tentacled from open electrical boxes and equipment. Sewage and groundwater formed large stagnant cesspools atop clogged drains. Thick black fluids smeared walls. More than 200 inoperable methane, water and sludge valves were blotched with white paint, signaling to a crew that will never come that they require emergency servicing. (Hopper says after about four buckets’ worth, his crew stopped marking them.) Large machines lay rusted, roped-off, broken and out of service.
In one tunnel laced with methane gas pipes, an alarm attached to the ceiling began to twirl like the strobes of a police car, indicating something else had gone horribly wrong, somewhere else in this massive complex.
Despite its myriad internal issues—the majority of which the employees’ watchdog state health and safety regulators somehow always seemed to miss—the one thing management has to care about, say workers, is what’s leaving the plant. But it’s the journey that wastewater takes to get to that outflow pipe that Hopper and other workers wish regulators—and law enforcement officials—would really see.
“This is no secret; they’re aware that these issues need to be addressed,” he says of Cedar Creek’s management team. “So if they think it’s more necessary for me to work on that pump, because the end result is they have to meet their state permit, well, who am I to decide that your life is secondary to their process?”
Cedar Creek’s treatment process woes—or at least the one getting the most attention right now from Mangano and his Chief Deputy County Executive Robert Walker—arguably begin at the first stage, amid the clanking and humming that fills the pungent air of its E Building, known as the Influent Building.
This is where the 60 to more than 100 mgds of raw sewage and wastewater first enter the plant. And it stinks.
Massive machines called bar screens collect large debris and other contaminants—mostly rags and clumped toilet paper—by mechanically lifting them from the constantly flowing stream and dropping them in large dumpster-like containers. It’s a critical step in the treatment, because if the solids aren’t removed, they’ll continue to subsequent stages and travel through machines that aren’t designed to receive them, damaging or destroying the machines in the process, warn Hopper and Dunne.
As the Press observed, this system is not working right now.
Though all four bar screens should be available for use, they explain, with a minimum of three bar screens running at all times and the fourth as a standby, only two are functional during this visit, and one shook violently in its track with each robotic lift, creating loud banging noises. Dunne says recently they were all down.
“That means all those rags are being carried over and put into the rest of the system, overloading the plant and wearing out equipment faster than it should be,” explains Hopper.