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Tapped Out: Residents Demand Answers, Action From LIA Water

Over 180 residents gathered in Malverne Thursday night for a Q & A session with Long Island American Water President Bill Varley.

They came carrying containers of tap water that looked more like urine samples, filters covered in brown sludge and tarnished towels and laundry that had been washed using the H20 in their homes.

Over 180 residents, mostly from Malverne, packed the basement of the village's public library Thursday night to confront Long Island American Water President Bill Varley about the offensive brown water that is flowing out of the faucets in their homes.

What were they looking for? It varied. Some wanted answers, action, restitution, rate cuts, proof that their water was safe to consume and most of all, clean, clear water.

"We’re not going to relent or be satisfied until the water runs clear," said Malverne resident Tom Grech, the chief organizer of the meeting and the founder of the Facebook group, "I Love Malverne but hate the brown water (from LI Water)" - now 215 members strong.

Grech is fed up with hearing the explanations from the company about the iron content in the water, which Varley says is naturally-occurring, widespread throughout the South Shore and not a health hazard. 

"I don’t want to be a scientist," Grech said. "I want to be a happy rate payer [who] turns the water on and gets clean water…that’s not too much to ask for in 2011.”

That said, Grech did make it clear from the start of the meeting that the dialogue with Varley and his staff on Feb. 10 would be civil.

"Tonight should be a very big fact-finding mission for us," he said, instructing all those in attendance to "demonstrate the dignity and respect for which Malverne is known for. This is not a witch hunt.”

Varley started off by explaining his credentials (He’s a civil engineer who “cut his teeth in waste water industry” and even spent years drilling wells throughout Nassau County.) Varley apologized for not notifying the Malverne's mayor, Patricia Norris McDonald, and its residents about the glitches that have kept the iron removal plant recently constructed in the village from coming on-line as planned.

“I’m accountable to you the customers first,” he said, and promised that the new facility would be up-and-running in four to five weeks. 

He then took a swig of some of the tap water he said he had taken right from the library’s faucet. Still, he refused to take a sip of the murky, brown water that residents had brought with them.

"It's not the same water," he said.

He explained that the iron concentration was higher in these samples because they came from people's hot water heaters, where iron sediment collects over time as the temperatures break down the agents the company applies to the water.

Varley also agreed to provide regular weekly updates on the progress of the plant and any flushing that will be done in the village, which will be posted on Grech’s Facebook group and the Malverne Civic Association’s Web site, as well as LIAW’s.

For example, as of now, Varley is letting everyone know that his workers will be going around the village of Malverne next week to flush out the whole system. He also said he is giving the contractor a week to figure out why the paint applied to the water tank in the new facility will not fully cure, before he will force him to sandblast it.

Most of the night was devoted to the question-and-answer session, moderated by Civic President Peter Robideau. Everyone remained civil, but emotions did run high, especially when residents spoke of the fear the rusty water may have on the health of their families.

"The water coming into your home is safe,"  Varley said, to which many of those in the audience shouted, “Where is the proof?”

Varley turned over the microphone to his superintendent of Water Quality, Mike Nofi, who said, “The water meets all the health requirements and it meets all the aesthetic requirements.”

This number is set at 1.5 parts per million if you use sequestering agents, which Long Island American Water does to keep it in solution. However, when heated to temperatures over 120 degrees the agents break down and iron becomes more concentrated in the water. 

In response to a recent test of a sample of hot water taken from a home in Malverne, which proved to be 10 times over the standard, Varley said that the limit is set for aesthetic reasons only.

“It’s not a health hazard,” he repeatedly said.

Nofi further urged those in attendance to pick up a copy of the company’s latest Annual Water Quality Report (see attached) which were laid out on a table in the room along with sheets filled with FAQs about the iron content and tips for dealing with the discolored water.

“The report is required and vetted by the Health Department to make sure it’s accurate,” he said.

Still, not everyone was satisfied with putting their trust and their health in the government’s hands.

“At Ground Zero the government said the water was safe to breath, but guys are dying today,” one man exclaimed.

One woman strongly felt that there was a connection between the tap water in her Malverne home and her health problems. She has high levels of iron stores in her liver, which has her doctors scratching their heads.

She said when she tested her cold water it was three times the normal level.

"We had a new hot water heater put in, I have a new pipe from our house to the street and I had an iron recovery filter put up on my house. My liver enzymes are not starting to come down....maybe this is what's causing it," she said "I've been drinking water in Malverne for 31 years and I really feel like you have let me down."

One man suggested the company commit to do split-level testing to target the hot spots in the village, since the prevalence if iron in the water varies from home to home. Right now, the company's only two testing sites in Malverne are on Aberdeen (near ) and on the corner of Ocean Avenue and Lakeview Avenue.

Parents questioned if the tests had been conducted on infants or on those who bathe in it. (As of now, tests have only looked at the effects on adults and children ingesting it.)

“I wouldn’t drink this water,” said Peggy Hopkins, a nine-year resident of Malverne, who hails from Brooklyn, where she says the water is very clear. “My water smells, especially in the summer, from chemicals.”

She described the stench as similar to sulfur or rotten eggs and asked, “Are there other harmful chemicals in my water here in Malverne besides the iron?”

Varley explained that the water is treated with chlorine to knock out the smell, but said it is not harmful.

Aside from the health concerns, many residents also wanted to convey the toll the brown water has taken on their wallets. They spoke of the cost of replacing their hot water heaters,  allegedly at the suggestion of Long Island American Water customer reps, an issue that Varley said he is “investigating,” and spending countless dollars on bottled water, filtration systems, servicing appliances and visits from plumbers.

When asked how many people spent over $1,000 on equipment to correct the problem, many in the audience raised their hands.

One Malverne resident, Bill Coogan, who had installed a whole house filtration system in his home after becoming sickened by the thought of giving his kids yet another back in what he said looked like “tea,” brought with him one of filters he recently removed. After about seven weeks, it was covered in a dark brown sludge, representing all the iron that he had blocked from getting into his tap water. But the clear water comes with a hefty price tag. Each filter costs $50 and while the packaging says they should last up six months, he usually needs to swap his out after only two because the high levels of iron quickly clog them up.

“People are spending hundreds and thousands of dollars to get clear water to put their kids in a bath,” Coogan said. “This is unacceptable.”

Nofi said that purchasing water filters is "a consumer's choice," and that since the water is not a health hazard, these are not necessary.

There will be one expense though that customers will be unable to avoid - a hike in their water bills.

Anne Coffey, who owns a real estate agency in Malverne, said the press about the brown water in village could also lower people's property values. Then, she asked who is paying for all these plants and other investments LIAW is making. The answer: the rate payers. Customer across the board will most likely see a rate increase when the work is done.

Once operational, the $7.5 million plant will add 4,000 gallons of clear, iron-free water into the system, which will mix with the rest of the water, but will reduce the overall concentration of rust in the system.

How much of an effect it will have will depend on how close you live to the plant, and what type of street you live on. (Iron build-up tends to be worse on dead ends.) The pipes running under your street are also a big factor, as Village Trustee Joseph Hennessy pointed out.

"We've had problems for years with the water in the village," Hennessy said. "A lot of the problems were that the lines were too small and some of those have been replaced when there was enough of an outcry.

"We've had on several occasions had to replace water mains or piping in the streets that was too narrow. It cleared up the problem immediately for people. It's not just the filtration system," he said. "How much of what's in the village or in West Hempstead, is old stuff that's causing the problem?"

It was Grech who asked what he called his “$64,000 question,” is it even possible to have clear water in the area?

“We built this iron removal treatment plant, specifically because we had hot spots of iron in the Malverne-Lynbrook area…this isn’t going away,” Varley said. "People in Inwood are going to feel the effects of this plant..it benefits the whole system. It will improve."

"The only way I'm going to get to zero percent [iron] is these iron removal treatment plants...and keep investing in the infrastructure."

What's Next? The Malverne Civic Association is recruiting volunteers to serve on committees that will continue to pressure the company and communicate updates to residents. The Civic has also donated water testing kits to this cause. Learn more by e-mailing info@Malvernecivic.org or contacting Tom Grech through the Facebook page "I Love Malverne but hate the brown water (from LI Water)"

When Will Plant Begin Functioning? The company has promised to have the plant on-line within five weeks, making the deadline March 15, the Ides of March.

VIDEO: Check out the video footage from the meeting.

Dawn Wladyka February 11, 2011 at 09:37 PM
It really disturbs me that they keep saying that the warm brown water is "not the same water" as the cold water b/c it's been heated in a hot water heater. The water needs to be safe BOTH when it's hot and when it's cold - both when it's treated with silicates and when it's not. The murky bath water is absorbed through our skin and our children's skin, and sometimes orally, in the shower and bathtub. Why can't they just understand that? Maybe the next question shouldn't be "Would you drink this Mr. Varley?" but, "Would you bath your child in this?"
Jeanne D'Esposito February 11, 2011 at 09:57 PM
Thank you for the comprehensive report on the meeting. It's wonderful to have such a dedicated and thorough journalist covering our community. Great job!
eileen d'amore February 12, 2011 at 12:06 AM
I think the board of health needs to conduct its own water sample iron level tests. as was said at the meeting when the residents requested the company come to our home to collect & tests samples. the american water company does its own testing in the plant and in commericial area. not residential. when asked if he would conduct testing in residential homes he stated no. mautiple residents had there own private testing done & iron levels came back 3- 10 times higher than the mandated levels. they have been non trust worthy & i think the health deparmentt needs to step in to oversee the testing. residents even volunteered to send in there own sample to be tested again declined. something VERY FISHY is going on here.
Frank Koester February 12, 2011 at 05:07 PM
Maybe people should just STOP paying their bill till they get what they EXPECT as a paying customer. It just never seems to end on LI. Great story Tara.
Christine Addiego February 12, 2011 at 05:11 PM
The water company representative stated that it would be inconvenient to do testing on residences, that it's easier to do testing in commercial areas. Why is it that they can come read the water meter but can't do testing? Why not pick a few hundred houses, make a schedule and make appointments for the testing? I assume many residents in Malverne will volunteer and, if coordinated correctly, the results will open the eyes of the execs at LIAW.

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