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Shelter Island Councilman confronts Water Advisory Committee chairman at meeting: Town Engineer explains water data

The Town Board got a first look Tuesday afternoon at a draft of a letter and supporting materials developed by the Water Advisory Committee to inform residents of results of water tests conducted in the Center triangle.

But all was not calm in the hour and a half discussion, as Councilman Albert Dickson charged Water Advisory Committee (WAC) Chairman Peter Grand with “fear mongering” in his comments to the Reporter that appeared on the website.

“What authority does he have to do that?” Mr. Dickson asked his Town Board colleagues, about making public statements to the press. Mr. Grand said he took exception to the   fear mongering accusation, and said it’s important to ensure the public has information necessary to make their own decisions about their health.

Mr. Dickson cut him off: “I don’t care what you have to say.”

Mr. Grand, who was in the Zoom audience, was ultimately invited to speak by Supervisor Amber Brach-Williams. He said WAC meetings are open to the public and covered by the Reporter and that he had not initiated the contact with the paper but responded to questions after the Jan. 22 meeting at which the drafting of a letter was unanimously approved.

He later told the Reporter he stood by his original comments, and while he serves “at the Board’s pleasure,” he feels “compelled to offer clear, unvarnished information as I see it, to both the Board and the local community.”

At Tuesday’s work session, Town Engineer Joe Finora outlined the contents of the letter that was drafted by WAC members, led by member Andrew Chapman. Mr. Finora said the letter, which characterized the results of water samples of 44% of Center triangle residents who participated in testing, was solid. Mr. Chapman told the Board that once its members had consolidated their thoughts about the letter, they should designate Mr. Finora to rewrite it for them.

The engineer said a couple of patterns emerge from the data, with about 10% of those whose water was tested, failing the standard for potability. He acknowledged the failures might not be all related to high nitrogen levels in drinking water. There are other contaminants and bacteria that could have resulted in some of the failures.

Ms. Brach-Williams said she had concern that a three-page letter with a lot of the pertinent data on page 2, might be a lot for recipients to digest. She suggested leading the letter with a summary statement of findings.

Mr. Dickson asked for comparisons with data gathered in the past by the United States Geological Survey (USGS). He said median levels then showed an average reading of 4.57, within an acceptable range for safe drinking water.

“I don’t think that’s a fair way to crunch the numbers,” Mr. Finora said. He further noted there was some re-testing done to confirm numbers from a state-certified lab that tested the water samples. He also said the USGS numbers were collected at different times and only on a few sites, as opposed to these tests taken at the same time of year on specific properties.

To Mr. Dickson’s suggestion that tests be done at the town’s 13 test wells used to measure water quantity, Mr. Finora said it would not likely be practical, and would not help to confirm or deny the data collected so far.

While defending the tests done to date, Mr. Finora said the town lacks the resources to tackle a much wider role and get involved in trying to tell property owners more than what these tests indicate.

Councilman Benjamin Dyett said individuals, especially those who didn’t participate in this round of testing, and those who received information indicating their water failed to be potable, should have their water tested again. They can be assisted by regulatory agencies, including the Suffolk County Department of Health Services, and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, which are fully aware of drinking water issues on the Island and have the expertise to provide more information to homeowners.

There were several public comments, including by resident Pam Demarest, saying she had concerns that since there are many public buildings in the Center, their problems with water might be skewing the overall results.

Mr. Finora said some public buildings in the Center don’t have problems and initial efforts to deal with others aren’t all related to nitrogen levels.

Because the town has more data on the public buildings, he said it was important to add it into the overall study, but disputed that it skewed overall results.

He further said the tests to date in the area are a beginning of a discussion but it’s a long process for the Town Board to begin offering solutions.