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Illegal Septic Dumping a Sordid Mess

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Stephen Bauer arrived at his home on a September afternoon, looked out onto the creek that lies in a secluded section of his property -- a place where he and his kids regularly wade, fish and canoe -- and saw the floating remains of a septic tank purge. Not the remains from his own septic tank, mind you, but the refuse of strangers that had been illegally dumped into the water.

"It was disgusting," Mr. Bauer said of the mess he discovered that day (and which he captured on camera and video). Among the sordid items were sanitary napkins, used condoms and a mass of slow moving septic sludge that packed a malodorous punch.

"The smell was just vile," Mr. Bauer recalled on a recent afternoon during which he provided a tour of his 3-acre property that borders Mount Kisco and Chappaqua in New York's Westchester County (an area better known as the home of a past president and current secretary of state, rather than as a place of environmental assault).

The creek where the violation took place runs into a pond that is nestled amongst banks of native plants Mr. Bauer -- a coffee executive by trade -- has spent a decade cultivating. The result of that labor was in full bloom on this day: shooting stars, wild geraniums and blue lobelias dotted the landscape which is also a sanctuary for a variety of wildlife.

Also in plain view was a canoe turned upside down. It has remained unused by the Bauer family ever since the septic incident, now almost three years ago. Suffice to say, the experience squelched any further family wading or fishing excursions given that that the waste -- disintegrating toilet paper and all -- has settled into the bottom of the pond, converting it into an open-air septic holding pen.

What might have been merely a squirm-inducing dilemma for one unfortunate family, though, reaches beyond the tony hamlet where Mr. Bauer lives. It turns out, the creek -- once it passes through Mr. Bauer's pond which contains a damn to prevent the exit of solids -- eventually flows into the Croton Reservoir. That reservoir serves as a major water supply, not only for residents of Westchester, but for the residents of New York City as well.

Reservoir water is treated long before it flows from homeowner's taps, of course, and New York's Department of Environmental Protection is diligent about reporting water quality findings to the public.

Still, acts of environmental sabotage like the one that happened on Mr. Bauer's property are an added burden to a system already battling the effects of water-borne bacteria. And for anyone who doubts whether a one-time septic dump can make that much of a difference, consider the results of water testing conducted on Mr. Bauer's pond after the purge. Those tests found levels of coliform (a bacteria found in fecal matter) of 17,000 per 100 ml. To put that in perspective, public beaches are required by law to close any time coliform levels are above 10,000 per 100 ml.

Mr. Bauer considers what was done on his property to be a crime and it's hard to disagree, particularly when you consider that there were witnesses to the illegal act itself. Two of his neighbors happened upon a septic waste truck dispersing its load into Mr. Bauer's creek and were able to provide sworn testimony to police and county officials that they clearly saw the name of the company written in large letters on the truck, a local septic removal company based in Chappaqua, the same town where Bauer lives.

That company denied any wrongdoing and a subsequent two-year investigation by the county's district attorney's office has yet to bring any charges. The outcome is particularly perplexing given the pro-environmental stand Westchester County is known for. The county has been at the forefront of environmental crackdowns in the past, including criminal charges filed against the Metro-North Commuter Railroad in connection with a fuel oil spill last year and, more recently, one involving a Peekskill business charged with illegally discharging chlorine into a storm drain that flows into the Hudson River.

Those arrests occurred with the help of Ronald Gatto, director of the county's Environmental Security Unit, who came to Westchester after a twenty-plus year career with the New York City Department of Environmental Protection Watershed Police where he gained a reputation as an aggressive pursuer of environmental wrong-doing.

In the meantime, Mr. Bauer says he is left with unanswered questions as to why it has taken so long to charge those responsible for the illegal septic dumping that took place in his backyard. "I want the bad guys to pay,' he said. That payment includes the dredging costs of his pond, estimated to be about $200,000.

To further his chances of remediation, Mr. Bauer has turned to the civil courts. Last week, he filed a lawsuit in county court. The move is his last chance, he said, to remedy the damage that he continues to live with and that has -- thus far -- left him up a soiled creek without any environmental paddle to bail him out.