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Department of Health to Cape Vincent: Seize control of privately run water district to prevent contamination

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CAPE VINCENT — Town residents who belong to a small water district, including a high-ranking state official, appear to be violating state regulations by providing connections to outside users and refusing to report them, according to a letter from the state Department of Health.

In the April 7 letter, the department urged the town to take over control of Water District 2 from its three sanctioned users and expand it to include other properties. If users fail to cooperate with that plan, the town must presume a “hazardous designation” and perhaps install a backflow-prevention device to ensure outside connections do not contaminate water that flows downstream.

From off Favret Road, the district’s water is supplied directly by the Development Authority of the North Country, which bills according to water use and the operation and maintenance of its regional water line. The line runs from Cape Vincent to Brownville along the old New York Central Railroad corridor.

“The best solution to this problem is to incorporate those (outside) users via a water district extension with the infrastructure to be owned and operated by the Town,” said the letter by Claude A. Curley, assistant engineer for the DOH. “Should it be determined that an individual connection serves at least five service connections, that ‘supplier’ may be regulated by DOH as a public water system.”

DOH oversight, according to the letters, would require “sampling, submission of monthly reports, oversight by a NYS licensed D or C operator, etc.”



CONTROVERSY OVER OUTSIDE USERS

Longstanding controversy over outside users in Water District 2 resurfaced recently as the Health Department met with town officials to review a map and a report made in the summer of 2012 by Fourth Coast Inc. The town hired the Clayton firm to investigate connections to outside users in the district. Though the district has only three active users, that study confirmed at least 12 more unregulated connections to outside users since the district was formed in 1997.

The three authorized users of Water District 2’s water line connections are Darrel J. Aubertine, who works for the state comptroller as special assistant for external affairs, and his wife, Margaret S., who live on Hell Street; Donald J. Mason, a former town councilman who lives at 4670 Favret Road; and Wesley A. Bourcy, who operates a small dairy farm at 4224 Branche Road.

Fourth Coast’s 2012 map of the district shows all three users have established connections with outside users. PVC piping likely was used to build those outside connections, according to Fourth Coast.

The map shows that Mr. Aubertine’s residence has seven additional outside connections. Three of those connections are on properties he owns; four other users with connections are Terry L. Aubertine, who owns a small dairy farm at 32175 Hell St.; Gene Aubertine, 5112 Favret Road; Patrick Aubertine, 5233 Favret Road; and Frank Giaquinto, who owns a small dairy farm at 32748 Hell St.

Two outside users have connections that stem from Mr. Mason’s residence: James Mason, 4957 Favret Road, and Mary Lou Bourcy, 4609 Favret Road. Wesley Bourcy has two outside connections associated with his residence on property he owns at 4009 Branche Road.

Some residents did not welcome Fourth Coast’s 2012 probe of the water district. One was Darrel Aubertine, who wouldn’t let engineers on his property. Some were concerned about the study’s intent and whether it might lead to additional charges, said Robert J. Campany, Fourth Coast project manager. But Mr. Campany, who helped design the original district in 1997 as an engineer for Bernier, Carr & Associates, Watertown, said he is confident that connections outlined on the map are accurate.

“We relied on information that was provided by others to map out these other connections,” he said. “They told us where the waterlines were, and we put it down on paper. I think the map is accurate to the extent of information that we were provided, but there could be exclusions or differences.”



CHOOSING A COURSE OF ACTION

The town, meanwhile, is taking action based on the Health Department’s recommendations to prevent contamination that could be caused by the potentially illegal connections in the district, Supervisor Urban C. Hirschey said.

He said the town will determine whether a backflow-prevention device must be installed in the water district to ensure contaminated water doesn’t enter the system from outside connections. Water connections at dairy farms within the district, for example, could cause contaminated backflow to enter the water supply.

“Our concern is about the farmers because we don’t know if there could be any cross connections that could cause contamination,” Mr. Hirschey said Thursday. “There could be a chance that contaminated backflow could get into the DANC line, and our concern is the liability that the town has to protect users.” The water flowing downstream from the Cape Vincent filtration plant goes past Limerick, Dexter and Brownville.

No agreements are in place for outside users to pay operation and maintenance costs from DANC, according to Fourth Coast’s report. The three sanctioned users pay these fees. Mr. Hirschey said he believes that outside users are charged for the costs incurred by the active users.

In Mr. Aubertine’s case, Mr. Hirschey said, “I have no idea how he is splitting it up, but I think he’s doing it honestly.”

The town likely will not attempt to expand and take control of Water District 2, Mr. Hirschey said, because district users already voiced their opposition to that plan when Fourth Coast completed its study.

“We’ve been there, and they won’t let us on their property,” he said. “But we’re going to do as much as we can do to protect the health and safety of the people.”

Councilman John L. Byrne III said it’s unfortunate that users are unwilling to cooperate with the town to expand the district.

“If you have one person who is doing something that’s not proper, and the rest ask the town to protect them, we can’t do it,” Mr. Byrne said. “We would like to get folks to be voluntarily folded into a District 2 expansion. Because if we did that, we can test the water quality and make sure they have a proper district. But it’s hard for us to do anything if they’re choosing not to let people on their property.”



AUBERTINE RESPONDS

In a phone interview Friday, Mr. Aubertine said connections to outside users were built in 1997 when the district was formed. The Development Authority of the North Country and Town Attorney Mark G. Gebo both approved the plan for residents to build those outside connections, he said. Construction of those lines was paid for entirely by residents in the district.

Mr. Aubertine said the concern expressed in the Health Department’s letter about installing a backflow-prevention device is unwarranted because that device was installed by Bernier, Carr & Associates when the district was established. Property owners hired a Lowville contractor, Roes, Lloyd & Sons LLC, to dig trenches needed to install the lines leading to outside users.

“They put the trenches in for us, and we put the lines in,” Mr. Aubertine said. “We used a lot of our own equipment and provided our own bedding, sand and rock.”

Describing the water district’s genesis, Mr. Aubertine said, “The reason the Development Authority was never part of the district is because they couldn’t afford to run 9,000 feet of waterline, so we had to run those ourselves. Everyone knew that, and it wasn’t a surprise. We didn’t drill a hole in the side of the DANC line and start pilfering water, as John Byrne and Urban Hirschey would lead you to believe. Mark Gebo helped develop the line and did the legal work, and the DOH signed off on it and had no issues.”

Mr. Aubertine also said operation charges owed to DANC are paid by outside users, which contradicts what Fourth Coast found in its report. He said that while all connections in the line are billed using one “master meter,” outside users have water meters to determine how much they use individually.

“They’re paying the same operation and maintenance charge as anyone else — it’s built into the water bill,” he said. “Every gallon of water that comes through the master meter is paid for.”



WATER CHARGE DISCREPANCY

The Health Department’s review of the Fourth Coast study comes as the town is still trying to resolve a discrepancy over how much households are charged for water in water districts 2 and 3.

On Thursday, the Town Council voted to set a public hearing for 6 p.m. May 1 to approve a revised formula for how DANC charges users in both water districts. This came after town officials met last week with DANC to determine a more equitable way to charge users in the two districts.

The roughly 40 users in Water District 3 have received water from the town since 2008. But they still pay operation and maintenance fees for the DANC line because it serves as a backup water source.

The revised rate structure will charge users in water districts 2 and 3 with operation and maintenance fees based on the number of equivalent dwelling units, or EDUs, per household. Previously the town had divided the DANC’s maintenance charges equally between water districts 2 and 3. This caused some users to be charged excessively, and some to be charged less than they should. Under the proposal, DANC will bill the town for an allocation of 20,000 gallons of water per day.



RUSHED DECISION MAKING?

At Thursday’s meeting, Councilman Paul F. Aubertine and several residents objected to the May 1 public hearing. A water district advisory committee of residents has not yet held meetings to discuss the new rate structure that was agreed on by the town and DANC, Mr. Aubertine said during the meeting. Residents led by Darrel Aubertine decided to form the committee during a special water district meeting March 25, when they expressed concerns over the town’s management of water districts.

“I feel strongly that we need to start this committee up before the public hearing,” Mr. Aubertine said. “Three weeks ago, we had a meeting to create this committee, and there’s a possibility that they could look at this plan with their brain trust and come back with recommendations. We should set up this committee and give them an amount of time to settle this issue before we have a public hearing.”

Other board members, in response, said that two weeks will give the committee enough time to meet before the public hearing to review the plan.

“If by May 1 the committee comes back and says it needs another couple of weeks or a month to come up with a better solution for the distribution of expenses, then that will be fine,” Mr. Hirschey said.

Darrel Aubertine believes the town has rushed to set a public hearing without giving the committee an opportunity to evaluate the plan.

“They told us to form this group and said they would use it as a backboard to decide where we go with this,” Mr. Aubertine said. “So what’s the urgency now to have the public hearing in two weeks? They are rushing to judgment without getting answers to any questions.”

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