Mouth of the Merrimack: Undercurrents

Friday, October 3, 2003

An island not unto itself

The early fall days have turned markedly cooler, but Tuesday, we predict the temperature in Room B2 at the State House will be steamy hot. At 1 p.m., the Joint Committee on Local Affairs and Regional Government will open a hearing on the legislation filed for the Plum Island water and sewer project. The public will be welcome to speak, and we expect there will be plenty of comment from the people who are most affected by the legislation.

State officials see the revamped legislation as a step in moving the project forward, but they're willing to take into account the community's perspective. We said "take into account," but it's not clear if the tide of public opinion will go in one ear and out the other. If you were to poll the area's state legislators, we think they'd be glad to see the pipes sunk below the bridge to Plum Island tomorrow.

"This bill strikes a better balance between the two communities. It will keep the project on track and is another step toward both providing water and protecting the environment on Plum Island," says state Rep. Harriett Stanley.

State Sen. Bruce Tarr weighs in: "Over time, and through dialogue and deliberation, this bill has evolved to reflect the needs of Newbury and Newburyport in solving the utility issues on Plum Island. The public hearing is an opportunity to once again review the working elements of the legislation and to advise the Joint Committee on Local Affairs."

State Sen. Steve Baddour falls in line with Tarr: "After extensive cooperation among all local parties, I am happy to be able to support a bill that represents a community consensus and offers a dramatic improvement in quality of life for Plum Island residents."

"The bill strikes a good balance and reflects several months of hard work and compromise on the part of both communities," says state Rep. Mike Costello. "I'm looking forward to moving the bill in a rapid fashion so we can finally address the basic needs at stake: the delivery of clean water and the safe disposal of sewerage for island residents."

They're pleased with the newly-crafted bill, but may have lost sight of the trees for the forest. The legislation for the project is a requirement of the Administrative Consent Order between Newbury and Newburyport and the Department of Environmental Protection. Elements of the legislation include: a DEP requirement that residents in the project area must connect to the water and sewer; extending the repayment period for betterments to 30 years from 20; expanding options for the communities to structure the betterment system used to pay for the project; a public hearing process for accepting public ways to install water and sewer lines; extending the repayment period for short-term loans from two to five years so project planning and administrative costs can be paid via the betterment structure, not through each community's general funds.

Read the details of the legislation above a few times to digest it. It seems to cover all of the bases and reflects some modifications intended to address outstanding concerns. OK, so let's get on with it, you would say, especially if the water coming out of your Plum Island tap smells like sewage, as does the damp outline in your yard. But hold your breath (and noses) for a minute. Consider this. Petitioners have placed a question on the Nov. 4 Newburyport ballot, asking that a lot-by-lot analysis on Plum Island be conducted.

"The proposed legislation will abrogate the lot-by-lot question on the ballot Nov. 4 by jump-starting the Plum Island project before voters have a chance to vote on whether to do a lot-by-lot analysis," says Jeff Robertson, who was instrumental in adding it to the ballot.

The question seeks a survey that we think should have been part of the legislation, one that would determine which properties already are complaint with state sanitary codes or could meet those septic requirements without benefit of the sewer and water project. This logical step was followed in Barnstable County, where conditions were similar to Plum Island. Why wouldn't anyone want to find out the real scope of this project before painting with a broad brush, we ask?

"It is important to have a lot-by-lot analysis done so the city can determine which septic systems pass Title 5, which ones are failing, and if they are failing, how they can be fixed," Robertson says. "To start on a $35-million project without collecting basic information is like purchasing a new home without a house inspection."

While islanders anxious for water and sewer services may look at Robertson's efforts as simply a stall tactic to prevent the project from moving forward, the Low Street resident has organized a forum in attempts to better educate the public about what a lot-by-lot analysis means for Plum Island. The forum will be held Thursday, Oct. 9, from 7-8:30 p.m. in the Newburyport High School auditorium.

Current reporter Rob Marino has been asked to moderate the forum, where he will introduce speaker George Heufelder, the director of the Barnstable County Department of Public Health, as well as take questions from the audience. Robertson says Cape Cod has been addressing groundwater issues, so having Heufelder speak in Newburyport is relevant to the concerns on Plum Island.

Whether you agree with the lot-by-lot analysis or not, you have nothing to lose by going to the forum, asking questions and finding out more.


(This article replicated online with permission of the Merrimack River Current.)
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