The City of Newburgh water department opened its doors recently to residents, with a complete tour of the watershed and filtration plant. Newburgh Water Superintendent, Wayne Vradenburgh, answered all residents questions regarding water contamination from 2016 and the process the department goes through to get from Brown’s pond to faucets throughout the city.
“My staff has been put through the mill the past three years, we were short staff and my guys were working around the clock, but we’ve worked together and got through it,” said Vradenburgh. “The hardest thing is to have a group of folks working their tails off every day for people that don’t trust you because of the actions of someone else.”
Vradenburgh is hopeful that opening the doors to the public will help to restore the trust between the water department and the community. The first stop in the tour was to Brown’s Pond, the current source of water for the City of Newburgh. Vradenburgh insisted that although the pond has sediment dirt in the water, the end result is cleaner than bottled water purchased at stores. He reminded residents that all the water coming out of faucets today is completely clean water free of PFOS and PFOA.
In 2016 Vradenburgh recalled the worst moment of his career as the New York State Department of Environmental Control rolled in with black SUVs to take over the plant during the contamination. He was lucky enough to take over the job from a well-respected and thought out Superintendant John Platt.
Platt created a pump station at Brown’s Pond to have the reservoir as a back-up to Washington Lake. He received a lot of blowback putting in a $6 million dollar pump that could never get used, but he used interest-free loans and went forward with the project as a safeguard in the off chance that Washington Lake was ever compromised.
“The station was a golden nugget if we didn’t have this station we would be on bottled water for years,” said Vradenburgh. “I took this job because there was a solid structure set in place by John that I knew I could build upon.”
The pump station at Brown’s Pond cost $6,000 to run and is paid for by New York State, along with the generator and any extra costs related to the contamination at Stewart Airport. The pond is located in New Windsor, but is owned by the City of Newburgh. The Town of New Windsor does have a right to use the water in Brown’s Pond, especially since the discovery of PFOS and PFOA in New Windsor wells earlier this month. The city and the town of New Windsor are in discussions to make an arrangement regarding the water supply.
The water from Browns Pond goes through many levels of filtration before being distributed. The water first has a series of chemicals added to group together the organic compounds and allow them to flow to the top to get filtered out. It then goes through six filters to take out the organics from the water before going through the $20 million Granulated Carbon Filtration system installed by New York State with the intention to filter out PFOS and PFOA from New York State, but is currently used to clean the water from Brown’s Pond and the Catskill Aqueduct when ready to make the switch.
The GAC is a massive building with 18 vessels each holding 40,000 pounds of carbon per vessel. The water runs through the system like a snake running up and down through each vessel. The used carbon is taken to Pittsburgh Pennsylvania where it can be cleaned and reactivated. According to the agreement with NYS the carbon used in the Newburgh plant is all new carbon.
“We built this plant in a year and a half without a single boil notice,” said Vradenburgh. “Building a plant of this type in that short period of time is unheard of.”
Vradenburgh has not run a drop of Washington Lake water through the system because of the lack of insurance that short chain PFOS will get filtered out through Carbon. He also is not ready to move on the ion exchange resin proposed by the Department of Defense at Recreation Pond, because of the lack of science and technology proving its success.
“I am not ready to do anything until the science and the technology are there to prove that the water is 100 percent clean,” said Vradenburgh. “I believe we will have to stay on the Catskill aqueduct until there is a solution in place to provide the city with sustainable clean water. We do our part to make sure the best water quality is put out our door no matter what.”
Vradenburgh often struggled to make ends meet with a small budget and a small staff of 19, with seven operators that run the plan 24 hours a day seven days a week. He has found ways to save hundreds of thousands of dollars with leak detection. The savings from the leak detection was invested right back into the department, to bring equipment up to date and give workers the tools needed to do their job efficiently.
The department also participates in a lead line replacement program where residents with homes dating further back than 1988. In two years the department received 94 applications with 84 applications accepted and the program was a grant through New York State.
The struggle Vradenburgh faces is one that every department in the city faces, retention. He struggles to keep employees when the private sector is offering higher salaries and better benefits. They are trying to create internships and bring in younger people to get started in a career with the department.
Vradenburgh also faced the struggle of deciding to go to the private sector for more pay or to stay in the City of Newburgh.
“I have a love for the city, when you love Newburgh, you love Newburgh. I could take more money and go but I still have work to do,” said Vradenburgh. “I’ve got 13 years before I turn it over to someone else.”
The department hopes to spark an interest in young students at NFA with tours and outreach. A majority of the workers are older men, they are hoping to bring in younger workers to start their the department.
“Something I was very impressed by was that this entire department views the people they serve as customers and they always strive to provide quality service. They are continually employing advanced scientific testing, to ensure that our water is of the highest quality,” said Councilman Bob Sklarz. “It is truly a shame that the recent crisis, totally caused by outside agencies, has tarnished the reputation of this dedicated department. I could not be more proud of their professionalism during this challenging period.”