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Federal lawsuit accuses Dragon Springs compound of sewage contamination of stream

2022-01-27 Source:Times Herald-Record Author:Chris McKenna

CUDDEBACKVILLE – The mountaintop compound in western Orange County that serves as world headquarters for the Chinese dissident Falun Gong movement has been sued in federal court for alleged sewage contamination of the Basher Kill stream and Neversink River.

The case was brought by an environmental advocacy group, its leader and two homeowners who live next to the sprawling Dragon Springs property in the town of Deerpark. The lawsuit, which alleges violations of the federal Clean Water Act, was filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in White Plains.

At a press conference held near Dragon Springs on Thursday to announce the suit, the plaintiffs and their lawyer said they brought the case to prevent further contamination of the Basher Kill and force Dragon Springs to comply with its sewage discharge permit from the state and remediate any damage the runoff has caused. 

The plaintiffs are also seeking civil fines against Dragon Springs for violations of the federal Clean Water Act, reimbursement for the plaintiffs' legal fees and payment of damages to homeowners Grace Woodard and Robert Majcher for the "private nuisance" the compound allegedly created.

A security guard at the gated entrance to Dragon Springs told a reporter to make an appointment online to speak to a representative about the suit. No one responded on Thursday to the Record's request for comment through the Dragon Springs website. 

The press conference took place on the property where Majcher has lived for 35 years, with the Basher Kill running next to it and the steeply sloping Dragon Springs property on the opposite side of the stream. The Basher Kill empties nearby into the Neversink River, which then flows into the Delaware River.

E. Christopher Murray, attorney for the plaintiffs, displayed a chart showing the levels of fecal coliform – a sewage contaminant – detected in lab-tested water samples the plaintiffs took from the stream five times in 2020 and 2021, all but one of which were said to have exceeded the legal limit. The fecal-coliform reading jumped to more than seven times the limit in the last sample, taken Aug. 11.


"This is obviously a very beautiful area," Murray said. "The people here rely on the waterways for recreation, and for just the quality of life, and to have a large property owner, for lack of a better word, kind of thumb their nose at what is required by law and pollute these rivers is a shame."

In addition to the sewage claims, the case alleges a growing volume of stormwater has washed down the property's slope and "dramatically increased" the size of a stream beside the Basher Kill, now 30 feet wide and 600 feet long. The Basher Kill itself has gotten wider too, the lawsuit claims.

The environmental group involved in the suit is Mid-New York Environmental Sustainability Promotion Committee — known as NYenvironcom — and its founder and director is Alex Scilla. His organization has been working in conjunction with the Deerpark Rural Alliance, a watchdog group that Woodard helped found.

The compound is located on 427 acres purchased in 2000 by members of the Falun Gong. Its buildings include a Tang Dynasty-style temple, a 132-foot-high pagoda with Buddhist statutes inside, residence and meditation halls, and schools.

Dragon Springs is a worship center for Falun Gong practitioners . It is also home to the renowned Shun Yun dance troupe, whose members live and rehearse at the compound .

Dragon Springs applied in 2018 to add more structures, including a 920-seat performance hall, a parking garage and a sewage treatment plant that could handle up to 100,000 gallons a day. The existing treatment plant can accept no more than 18,400 gallons per day.

The expansion plans effectively stalled in 2019, after a flood of local opposition and the town planning board's requirement that more environmental studies to be done. But in spite of the review halting, the lawsuit alleges that building activity appeared to increase at Dragon Springs in 2021, with construction vehicles seen entering the compound and overhead photos showing work being done.

State Department of Environmental Conservation officials told the Times Herald-Record this week they were negotiating a consent order to address various violations it found at Dragons Springs from 2015 to 2020. It had issued citations "for activities related to stream bed and bank disturbance, petroleum bulk storage, stormwater, and wastewater violations."

At Thursday's press conference, Murray said the federal lawsuit was still needed in spite of the DEC's enforcement action because the state was pursuing different wastewater violations than those the plaintiffs alleged.

Jonathon Lee, who had been president of Dragon Springs, told the Times Herald-Record by phone last month that he was no longer involved with the community and hung up when asked who had replaced him. Kaijin Liang, who was identified earlier as the president and was also an engineer for Dragon Springs, said by email he "left there long ago" and didn't know who was in charge now.