October 9, 2003


Selectmen won't pay to oppose PI project


Staff Writer

SALISBURY -- A few weeks ago the Salisbury Board of Selectmen pledged that they would do what they could to oppose the Plum Island water and sewer project as proposed -- but they didn't think that meant spending thousands of dollars.

The project, which would extend sewer and water service to the island, is intended to remedy non-compliance with state septic regulations known as Title 5. But the plan to bring Newburyport's water and sewer to Plum Island at an estimated cost of $22.9 million, has angered some in Salisbury who believe that the project would place more pressure on what they believe to be an already strained Newburyport wastewater treatment plant. In addition to the town of Salisbury, opponents of the project include the Island Futures Group, chaired by Maria Eigerman, and 12 Plum Island residents.

At Monday night's selectmen's meeting Harbor Commission Chairman Reggie Santos informed the board of a letter he'd received from Harold Humphrey, a former Salisbury Sewer Commissioner and vocal opponent of the Plum Island project. The letter asked the commission to pony up $10,000 to pay for an engineer to testify against the project.

"He wants us to hire an engineer from Wright Pierce of Topsham, Maine, to testify ... against the project," said Santos. "We kicked the idea around for quite some time and weighed the options of using money from the revolving fund, but we ultimately voted to seek the advice of you gentlemen."

The selectmen took a moment to look at each other and Town Manager Neil Harrington before Selectman Henry Richenburg spoke up.

"Am I hearing you correctly that they want us to pay the whole cost of the engineer?" asked Richenburg.

"Well, apparently the cost would be $10,383 for the engineer's services and Mr. Humphrey would pay the $383," said Santos.

"When Mr. Humphrey came before this board to ask for our support, he made it clear that there would be no cost to the town," said Selectman Chairman Ed Hunt.

The selectmen didn't take a vote on the proposal, but instead informally decided not to spend $10,000 to hire an engineer.

Harrington wouldn't say whether he thought hiring an engineer was a good idea, but he said he supported the selectmen's decision.

When asked why he though Humphrey approached the Harbor Commission instead of the Board of Health, which has been very involved in this issue in the past, Santos said, "I guess it's well known that the commission has some money in our revolving fund."

Santos said currently the Harbor Commission has about $65,000 in the revolving fund, but a good chunk of that will go to the harbormaster's operating budget for this year and then an unknown sum will go to pay for town dock project, which was completed this year.

After the board meeting Monday night, Santos said that he re-read the article established at last spring's selectmen's meeting which created the Harbor Commission's revolving fund.

"I re-read the guidelines of what we're allowed to use the revolving fund for -- maintenance of the town dock replacement and purchase of new equipment for the harbormaster, and to comply with the Clean Water Act -- and I realized that we definitely couldn't use it for this purpose," said Santos.

That isn't to say that the Harbor Commission hasn't played a part in monitoring the Plum Island project since the city of Newburyport and town of Newbury -- which share Plum Island's developed northern end -- entered into an agreement with the state Department of Environmental Protection two years ago to provide water and sewer to the island.

"Last year we paid for quite a few tests to be taken in the (Merrimack) river and we turned over the analysis of the tests to the health officer (Horace Baxter)," said Santos. "Some results showed the fecal coliform level pretty high and others showed no abnormality."

Town officials claim that the effluent from Newburyport's treatment plant is causing pollution, in the form of a much-discussed brown foam, on Salisbury's side of Merrimack River. Salisbury officials said they have tested the foam and found high levels of fecal coliform, a bacteria found in animal or human waste. However, the state says it has tested the foam and found it to be relatively harmless.

Although the project will be financed by betterment charges on the island's approximately 1,200 properties and wouldn't cost Salisbury residents anything, some town officials think that in the long run the project isn't worth the cost to the environment.

"I have no problem with Plum Island hooking their homes into the treatment facility, the thing I don't like is the state lowering its standards," said Hunt. "Acceptable levels of discharge are 200 parts per million and I hear they're going to allow 400 parts per million into the river, that's just not right.

Pollution in the Merrimack River is what forced the town to close it's lucrative clam flats back in 1986, but after 17 years the state will decide on Nov. 1 if the clam flats can reopened for commercial business. Town officials don't want to see the Plum Island project erase nearly two decades of conservation efforts.

"The Plum Island Project is one issue, but the issue that's of the gravest concern to Salisbury is the pollution to the estuary and the closing of the clam flats," said Harrington. "I haven't spoken to DEP but we have a picture of the brown foam, our health officer has test results that say there's a high level of fecal coliform in the foam, and people can vouch as to the stench out there, so logically it tells you that it's coming from some place fairly close."

(This article replicated online with permission of the Newburyport Daily News, an Eagle Tribune Newspaper.)
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