The message was clear: Commonwealth Plywood cannot bear another disruption in water supply.
“We have been struggling to be viable, and that is not a secret around the town,” said Paul Lessels, Vice President of Commonwealth Plywood’s Whitehall Division. “We are at a point where the water situation could put us under.”
Lessels was the first to speak on the issue at the March 2 meeting of the Whitehall village board after a week of problems at the water filtration plant and with the water line at the intersection of Routes 4 and 22. The problems caused two shutdowns of the villages water flow.
“Last Thursday’s event in shutting us down there was $10,000 in lost wages for people in this community that desperately need the money,” said Lessels about the week. “In addition, we lost some $40,000 in lost production, so we are talking some serious dollars.”
Lessels said that Commonwealth currently employs 70 people at their Whitehall plant, and said that the plant still is not back to full operation.
“Right now we are not fully operational and by this week we could lose some more time because of last week’s problems,” said Lessels. “Were not able to get back into business the next day. We’re still out because our boiler’s down and if we have no heat we can’t condition our logs because we need heat, and we had no heat if we have no water for the boilers.”
“I can empathize with the problems that you are facing,” said Mayor Patricia Norton. “I want you to know that the board is doing their very best to fix the problems.”
“I hope that it is a qualified technician that you have employed that can recognize these problems,” said Lessels. “We need an assurance that we will have water for people to flush their toilets and allows us to stay in business.”
“I have been working on this problem for a number of months,” said Trustee Kenneth Bartholomew. “We are all well aware of it and we are working on it.”
Lessels said that because of the need of water for his business, one improper shut down and loss of equipment would most likely signal the end of the company in Whitehall.
“We can not shut our boiler down in 10 minutes,” said Lessels. “We could very well have a meltdown, which would cost $1-to-2 million if a boiler completely went, and that would be the end of the mill.”
Lessels added that problems affecting Commonwealth Plywood in Whitehall had a far reaching impact.
“It’s not just a village problem,” he said. “We have customers in Detroit, New York City, Long Island, Buffalo and Cleveland and people are saying that Whitehall is not open for business. I have customers yelling at me today saying where’s the plywood. If we can’t deliver, we are out of business and it is because of water.
“It has a far wider ranging effect,” Lessels added. “It’s up to you to fix it and find a way to guarantee that we will get water.”
Lessels said that he understood that the town was learning a new water filtration plant and that there are occasional problems, but there needs to be a way to curb any serious issues from taking place.
“I do appreciate the operating difficulties,” he said. “We all learn by fire it seems. I guess the suggestion would be that in talking with the supplier, finding out what part is suspect for the next time and then doing everything you can to get things in there for backup just in case.”
Bartholomew said that they were not aware that they needed a backup for the water filtration plant’s processor unit, but that they would have a backup in place from now on.
“The reason we did not have a spare module was not that we did not want to pay for it, it was because we did not know that we needed it,” said Bartholomew. “When the tech came up here, he said that these units do not break, and I told him that you have a broken one right in front of you. If we knew that we needed it, we would have had one. We will have one from now on.”
Norton said that the village is also working to make sure that there is a bypass system in place that would be able to work if an incident like this were to happen again.
“We do plan to put a new bypass in at the plant so that the village will have water if there is a problem with the plant,” said Norton. “The plant was built with a bypass installed by the recommendation of the engineer. Someone from the state same up and found the bypass and said, no, it has to go. So we took it out.
“They told us last Friday that we could bypass, and we could not because we did not have a bypass system at their request,” added Norton.
Bartholomew added that even with the previous bypass system, there was a chance that the water would have still been shut down because the former bypass was also routed through the computer system.
“I want to make it clear that the bypass probably would not have worked anyway,” he said. “We are looking at a bypass system that would go from above the plant to below the plant.”
Trustee Walt Sandford added that there also needed to be better communication between those who helped to build and run the plant.
“We have had a multitude of problems,” said Sandford. “When something fails, the contractor points to the next person in line and they are all shifting blame. I think the board did everything that they could to bring it back as fast as they could.”
Norton said that along with commenting to the members of the village board, those concerned about the situation should also write to anyone that could have an impact on the situation.
“What I would suggest that you do is write a letter to the Department of Health and detail the issue that you have,” said Norton to Lessels.
Village attorney and New York State Assemblyman Tony Jordan agreed.
“I think that the thing to do is to write people and tell them what the problem is,” said Jordan. “Obviously, I am aware of the problem, but the more people that are aware that can help the situation, the better.”