Foil: Your right to Know.
“After nearly two years of investigation, a New York State utility oversite agency determined the county’s largest water company provided a sufficient water flow for firefighters who battled an adult home fire and didn’t violate state regulations.
The conclusion didn’t sit well with one village activist and some Rockland fire officials, including firefighters who battled the two-day-long blaze on March 22 and 23, 2021, at the Evergreen Court Home for Adults. Spring Valley Firefighter Lt. Jared Lloyd, 35, and adult home resident Oliver Hueston, 79, died in the blaze as firefighters pulled 112 residents from the collapsing building on Lafayette Street.
Screenshot from News 12 Video
The PSC investigation followed complaints from firefighters that low water pressure from nearby hydrants and a water company tower hampered their ability to douse the flames. Firefighters were forced to extend hoses to hydrants thousands of feet away to supplement their water supply. Low water pressure has been a consistent problem across areas of the working-class village for decades.
But the New York State Public Service Commission staff drew a slightly different conclusion based on water company information and investigation as opposed to firefighters at the scene on March 22 and 23, 2021. The PSC issued its 117-page report on Wednesday.
The water company at the time, SUEZ-NY, has been sold to Veolia North America. The sale received approval from the Public Service Commission in December 2021.
“Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) reports, provided by SUEZ, showed that SUEZ maintained an adequate supply of water at the Standpipe water storage tank feeding the Spring Valley area, and more specifically the area surrounding 65 Lafayette Street during the Spring Valley Incident,” the PSC staff concluded.
The utility’s water tower overlooks Lafayette Street in the Hill Section of the village.
PSC report doesn’t fault water company for ‘low pressure’
The report states the staff’s investigation found an extraordinary amount of water was pumped into the area. The report states the staff inspections of the utility’s physical assets in the area and the facilities that provide water didn’t reveal any problems or issues with the water company’s infrastructure that would have contributed to the reduction in pressure and cessation of flow at the multiple hydrants.
This report states staff focused on whether water company actions or inactions violated Public Service Law and contributed to two deaths and multiple injuries resulting from a fire.
Steven White, a village activist who has complained of low water pressure for years, said the PSC seems to be saying is that the water was inadequate, but that the water company did not violate any regulations. He said the agency seems to contend each hydrant was periodically inspected by the water company as required.
“However, there must be some level at which water supply adequacy must be reviewed as it pertains to possible maximum uses, and who is responsible for this if not the water company,” he said.Manage Subscription
White said the need for water for residents and in case of fires remains an issue.
He said the PSC report’s “comments about the village are especially concerning because we have been sending warnings to the state for years and they have been ignored. Even now, construction continues” as developers build and expand.
Assemblyman Kenneth Zebrowski, D-West Nyack, pressed for a PSC investigation after the fire.
“There is still much to be learned from this fire, but I am encouraged by the findings in this report that the issues experienced can be rectified,” Zebrowski said. “It is important that recommendations included in this investigation be taken seriously and that these changes be made so that Rockland is prepared for any future incidents.”
The PSC staff also cited the Rockland District Attorney’s Office criminal investigation into the fire and the inadequacies of the Spring Valley Building Department and government.
The report states fire investigators determined the fire erupted from reckless and unpermitted use of a blow torch with a 20-pound propane tank by two rabbis koshering the Evergreen Court kitchen and ovens for Passover. Rockland Rabbi Nathaniel Sommer and his son Aron have pleaded not guilty to felony charges, including manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide, arson, and assault for the injured firefighters. Their next court appearance to discuss a possible plea and sentence is scheduled for Feb. 14 in Rockland County Court.
The PSC report cites prosecutors’ court papers stating the rabbis brought large shovelfuls of hot burning coals into the facility during a ritual cleansing for Passover in the facility’s dairy kitchen. The coals and blowtorch caused a fire to build within the wall and ceiling above the kitchen, erupting into “a raging inferno” and spreading to adjacent portions of the facility.
The PSC report also delved into the village’s lack of inspections and enforcement to explain the fire and response.
The reports states staff reviewed subpoenaed documents that highlighted the history of building and fire code violations at Evergreen Court, dating to the 1960s at the building, the former Bader Hotel. The violations included faults in the fire suppression systems, inadequate evacuation infrastructure such as emergency lights and fire escapes, and unlicensed contractors performing plumbing and construction work.
The PSC investigation seeking information ran into Spring Valley officials being unable to provide inspections and other records more recent than 2016, according to the report. The building, long and narrow with multiple stories, could house up to 200 residents. “During its review of the documents that were produced, staff observed instances of unresolved violations or recurring violations,” the PSC report stated. “These findings seem to indicate serious issues with local building and fire code compliance, a lack of proper code enforcement and oversight, and inadequate record-keeping on the part of the Village of Spring Valley, which may be the subject of other ongoing investigations.”
Read the complete Journal News story here.