Then & Now: Binghamton-Johnson City Sewage Treatment Plant After Lee

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BINGHAMTON, NY (WSKG) — In September 2011, flooding from Tropical Storm Lee left devastation along the Susquehanna River. The Binghamton-Johnson City Joint Sewage Treatment Plant (BJCJSTP), which also serves other municipalities in the area, was already struggling with a number of issues before the flood. The plant is still working through repairs.

Jeff Platsky, retired reporter for the Press & Sun-Bulletin, and Vaughn Golden,  from WSKG’s Environment Desk, have both reported on the plant and sat down with WSKG’s Sarah Gager to talk about the repairs and the current state of the plant.

SARAH GAGER: Jeff, there were major problems at the plant prior to the flooding, namely the wall collapse earlier in 2011. Can you describe the fall out in the weeks after the storm?

Jeff Platsky, retired reporter of the Press & Sun-Bulletin (Vaughn Golden/WSKG)

JEFF PLATSKY: The fallout from the weeks after the storm was complete disaster. Plant— effluent from the plant, that is what is coming out of the plant after treatment, was lightly treated, if at all, because the whole filtration system was a goner.

It took out the filtration system, what was left of it, after the wall collapse, which was not much. It took out the electrical system. It took out other mechanical systems and it was an utter mess. And I think the employees at the plant were beside themselves trying to figure out how to get this plant online. And at the end there was no way in heck to get that plant online to the extent it was before the collapse and before the flood.

SG: Construction has progressed since the wall collapse and the flood, but it hasn’t been without controversy. You reported in 2019 that plant staff was frustrated with construction contractors. Can you explain a little bit about that?

JP: There was a problem with the plant—there was a problem because Mayor [Rich] David proposed to take the plant—or privatize the plant and the employees at the plant were beside themselves because it was an issue for them because they would not become- they would no longer be city employees, which would lose their pension, lose their- many of their benefits and they came to city council meetings to berate the board for their plan to privatize the plant.

And this went on for many meetings and it was very tense discussions. David and [Greg] Deemie, the mayor of Johnson City, which co-own the plant—both of them co-own the plant, but Binghamton is lead agency, so Binghamton was taking the lead on privatization—was subject of ridicule, subject of criticism, subject of rants by workers in the plant. And it was a gory scene at some of the council meetings with tempers flaring.

The Binghamton-Johnson City Joint Wastewater Treatment Plant. (Vaughn Golden/WSKG)

SG: Vaughn, has that continued from what you’ve seen?

VAUGHN GOLDEN: Right, in the last few months that I’ve been speaking to plant workers and people involved with the plant, some of that is definitely sticking around a little bit.

The construction project is still continuing, the capital project. And just a few months ago there was a problem with the ActiFlo system, which is maintained by Kruger-Veolia. It was leaking sand for a number of months. In there—they drained it—and found a ladder, plywood, and construction materials. It was- and some of the plant workers have described that they try to work with these contractors as much as possible, but sometimes things don’t exactly work out.

SG: There was a lot of controversy over the possible privatization of the plant, as you mentioned Jeff. Sewage treatment doesn’t really strike me as a political controversy, but it seems it has pervaded politics over the years.

JP: During- at council meetings, it was- there were long discussions. There used to be a city councilman, Dan Livingston, who used to bring it up constantly, and he and David or his reps from the sewage plant would get in constant arguments about the future of the sewage plant, the privatization efforts, and they were at loggerheads. David was no friend to Livingston, and Livingston continued to beat the drum on his efforts to defeat privatization. Well, Livingston was defeated and he’s no longer a pain in the neck for Mayor David, but that issue—the issue of the sewage plant—continues to roll around the city council.

SG: And, Vaughn, what have you seen?

VG: Right, right, it continues to bubble up. It continues to be around at city council meetings for sure. Just back in April, the city, which is still lead agency on that construction project, wanted to contract out a maintenance assessment—they called it an audit— of the plant, the sewage plant, to a firm called Veolia, that I mentioned earlier. That firm is one of a few that had previously bid to privatize the plant, so there were a number of people including plant workers and a lot of the Democrats on council especially, raised concerns that there would be some sort of conflict of interest.

Giovanni Scaringi, one of the Republicans on council, spoke for about 55 minutes straight, laying out why he was carefully in favor of going through with that audit. We have a cut of that.

CITY COUNCILMAN GIOVANNI SCARINGI: I have been told by the mayor that formal notices will be sent to both parties. Plain and simple, three words: bid is closed.

VG: That was one of the meetings that was still on Zoom, so his mic was cracking a bit there. But the city eventually approved that maintenance assessment, but Johnson City, which is part owner, moved against it and that resolution never went anywhere. But you can just tell how serious things are around the plant still today.

SG: Binghamton will soon elect a new mayor, how much do you all think the plant will come into play?

JP: The question is how much does it play on residents’ minds. Taxes – number one, crime – number two, well down on that list is the sewage treatment plant. Unless the bills for sewer and water go up higher than they are now, I don’t think it’s a major issue, but it’s clear where the lines are drawn. Because [Joe] Burns, a Democrat, is certainly on the- against privatization. Jared Kraham, I’m not sure but he was David’s right-hand man and helped develop privatization plans so I would assume he is somewhat on the side of privatization or at least the audit so.

SG: We just have 30 seconds left, but what are your predictions if another major flood were to happen again today. Will we have as many problems?

JP: I’ve toured the plant, there’s a huge wall there and they say it’s ready for a thousand year flood. So I’m pretty confident. There’s redundant systems, things are behind concrete walls. So there may be minor destruction, but nothing like happened on September 2011.

SG: Thanks, Jeff, and thanks, Vaughn.

VG: Thank you.

JP: You’re welcome.

SG: That was Jeff Platsky formerly of the Press & Sun and Vaughn Golden of WSKG’s Environment desk.

This is WSKG.