The two teenagers who tossed fireworks into Bay Park’s sludge tank in 1976 had to board a boat in order to reach their destination. The massive cylinders were situated on an island away from surrounding communities, infrastructure and people.
Cedar Creek’s arsenal of toxic sludge silos are tucked away in the back of a public county park, sandwiched in between the crowded suburban hamlets of Wantagh and Seaford—and nestled between two elementary schools.
Behind the plant is an aerodrome, where model aircraft enthusiasts fly remote-control airplanes. There’s also a section of the park that hosts an archery range.
Despite these areas, and the looming presence of methane gas spewing from inoperative valves nearby, not to mention a host of other potential dangers on the Cedar Creek grounds even when its mechanisms are functioning properly, Ribeiro, Cotugno and others decided to move a longtime, around-the-clock manned guard booth down off a hill near the one main back roadway that passes the plant. It had been staffed on the hill for more than two decades. They replaced it with a new shack that is staffed only during business hours, and it rests away from the road, flanked by a mechanical gate into the facility.
Due to mismeasurements upon the taxpayer-financed gate’s installation, trucks that drive into the plant’s grounds can’t exit through the opposite side, they have to leave back through the entrance. But that’s only one problem raised by workers and legislators such as Dunne. County workers have to double as traffic coordinators to prevent accidents.
The lack of the manned guard shack at the top of the hill has resulted in increased vandalism at the plant’s grounds. Landscapers back trucks into the county’s sand storage area and steal gravel, he says. Kids hop fences and drink alcohol. Someone had taken up residence in one of the plant’s maze of buildings, say workers.
According to Nassau County police, on May 25, the chain to the county’s impound lot, also located at Cedar Creek was cut. Property was damaged.
Had the guard booth been staffed, Dunne says, the problems would have been prevented, because employees would have seen the intruders and alerted authorities. Ditto for trespassers around sewage plant grounds.
A Press photographer recently tested the security of the plant’s grounds on a visit. He drove his truck along the perimeter of the plant, in close proximity to a fence that encircles it. Periodically, he climbed atop his truck and set up a tripod on its roof, snapping away at the facility’s intricate structures, “rapid-fire,” as he described it. He walked along the fence and climbed atop it, sporadically taking more photos. He drove his vehicle along the beach affronting another side of the plant and did the same. He filmed the troubled methane-spitting digesters.
In all, the photographer’s excursion lasted about 45 minutes, all in broad daylight. Not a soul stopped or even confronted him. Not until he walked up near the main entrance of the plant did he receive a suspicious glance from an outgoing car.
One current Nassau County police officer, who asked that his name be withheld for this story because he is on the job, witnessed the fallout from the Bay Park explosion firsthand. He tells the Press it shouldn’t be this way. He wants the facility and the valves secured.
“Something like that in a neighborhood is going to really be a catastrophe,” he says. “It is an important issue. It needs to be taken care of.”
The 1976 blast also still resonates with Ralph Spagnolo, Wantagh-Seaford Homeowners Association (WSHA) board member and retired 40-year county veteran of both Cedar Creek and Bay Park. He was working as a power plant operator in Bay Park’s engine room when he heard about the explosion.
“It was just an unbelievable thing,” he recalls. “Nobody could possibly fathom that that could happen.”
Spagnolo, like others, remains angry and frustrated about the inaction regarding Cedar Creek’s many, many deficiencies, especially the non-functioning methane valves.
“It’s a catastrophe waiting to happen,” he explains. “I think it is irresponsible of the county not to address that situation… Anybody who would have any kind of common sense would know that the main problem of a plant is the gas, and it should be addressed immediately. And it hasn’t been.
“You have a time bomb sitting there and nobody’s done nothing about it,” he continues.
Spagnolo, a soon-to-be great-grandfather, he adds, says the day he heard about the Bay Park explosion will remain ingrained in his memory forever. He just wants to ensure a similar tragedy doesn’t occur at Cedar Creek.
“It’s something you don’t forget,” he says. “A little boy died.”