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Thirst For Change Lacks In Water Crisis

Parched For Passion

A drinking fountain at Russell Joy Park in Fredonia is covered with caution tape due to the water crisis. P-J photo

Fredonia Trustee James Lynden began choking up. During an emotional 12-minute response defending an unstable, failing water system near the end of Monday evening’s Village Board meeting, Lynden kept referring to studies and costs involving the plant and reservoir that have been done within the last four years.

“There’s always the possibility of having issues with water and there’s algae in pretty much all kinds of water,” he said, often gasping while wearing his face covering. “Just because it’s coming out of Lake Erie doesn’t mean it’s without issue.”

Lynden is not incorrect in his theory. But he also is being oblivious. When it comes to water emergencies, no one does it quite like the village of Fredonia.

Similar to the most recent situation that includes an algal bloom in the reservoir, none of these emergencies are convenient. For the second time in three years, the village is in the midst of a boil-water order. The last one, in 2017, was due to numerous water-main breaks occurring that year in October.

Almost as alarming as the now two-week emergency is the tranquility that surrounds the village regarding the matter. There’s no urgency or uproar from residents who are paying big bucks for this service. On the contrary, it seems as though it is expected — even though we’re living in the 21st century and throw a fit when the internet cannot be accessed immediately.

Boil-water order? No worry in Fredonia.

Power outage in Miami during Buffalo Bills’ game? That 15-minute blip is a major crisis for the villagers.

Dr. Robert Berke, during last week’s Chautauqua County Health Board meeting, hit the nail on the head. Fredonia, with crumbling infrastructure and serious problems for decades, continues to just kick the six-pack — and appears bull-headed about doing so for as long as possible.

“This is a 30-year-old mess that could have been solved a while ago when they were offered a cross connect with Dunkirk,” he said. “They could have had all the water they want. This is an antiquated system. … It’s just nonsense.”

But water is Fredonia’s cash cow. Losing the reservoir and paying users would eliminate a revenue stream for its government. As far as elected officials are concerned, that cash is something the village cannot give up.

Simply put, the money is more important than delivering clean water.

Consider the last 30 years of problems this system and its users have endured. Some of these events include:

¯ In the late 1990s, the village tried to sneak in the back door to tap the waters of Cassadaga Lakes due to ongoing problems with low reservoir levels.

¯ During a hot summer with little rain in 2012, Fredonia’s top water official claimed the reservoir was in good shape. However, by late October the village learned it was on the hook for $99,000 of water it had purchased from the city of Dunkirk. No one on the Village Board or the mayor then knew of the three-month purchase and it led to the resignation of the supervisor at the filtration plant.

¯ Almost a month later, a boil-water advisory was issued and just about everyone got word on it except for the largest customer: Carriage House. According to those working there at the time, the plant did not find out about the water issues — that started in the morning — until right before the afternoon after seeing a “breaking news” alert on our observertoday.com site. Later that day, the plant stopped production and threw out tens of thousands of dollars in product that was tainted by the undrinkable fluid.

Carriage House, which was once Fredonia’s largest private employer, ultimately became fed up and let 400 jobs go in 2016 in the process. Village residents are content to blame ConAgra for making a corporate decision to pull the plug on the operation once it purchased the company from Ralcorp.

There’s a little truth to that. But let’s be more realistic about the situation.

Carriage House relied on clean water for its Fredonia operation to exist. When the village refused in 2009 and plenty of years after that to join the North County Water District, it also played a huge role in the company leaving.

How could a food-processing company, which had been burned by the municipality numerous times before, justify staying at a location that could not guarantee safe, clean drinking water? You think Brooks Memorial Hospital, which is still considering building a new facility across from the Fredonia Central Schools, isn’t worried about this possibility as well?

State University of New York at Fredonia officials are just as frustrated. As is the town of Pomfret.

Lynden was obviously emotional in his response to the county and others who are critical. How could he not be? He’s attempting to protect a system that is consistently breaking down and proven in recent years to be unreliable.

In the end, however, this has never been about delivering clean water to users. It is about keeping a municipality fiscally afloat.

Why else would Fredonia’s elected officials keep making excuses or stay silent during most of this crisis? Their priority is balancing a $10 million budget. Who cares if residents cannot drink safely from their faucet?

John D’Agostino is the regional editor of the OBSERVER, The Post-Journal and the Times Observer in Warren, Pa. Send comment to jdagostino@observertoday.com or call 366-3000, ext. 253.

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