by Brianna Borresen and Phil Rappaport
Pollution, aging sewage treatment plants, fertilizers and storm run offs are some of the largest contributors right now to the increasing levels of nitrogen in Long Island’s waters according to the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.
As these nitrogen levels continue to increase the quality of water decreases, threatening residents of Long Island as well as the life that occupies its waters.
Environmentalists have concluded that of all the major factors and contributors, it is the aging sewage plants that are perhaps the biggest culprits in disrupting the quality of water. Plants like the Bay Park Sewage Treatment Plant experienced a serious amount of damage following Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
Repairing these facilities is at the top of the list of issues being addressed by Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano.
“About nine and a half feet of water of tidal surge flooded the plant and affected much of the mechanical and electrical system…we have moved forward with comprehensive plans not only to strengthen Bay Park but all those plants affected,” said Mangano.
Though there are arguments that simply improving the plants isn’t enough.
Adrienne Esposito, the executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, points out that the amount of sewage being discharged is more of a concern than the state of the treatment plants.
“What’s happening right now all over Nassau and Suffolk, particularly in the Western Bays in Nassau, there’s too much nitrogen from the sewage treatment plants. In Nassau, it’s the Bay Park sewage treatment plant. 50 million gallons per day of treated sewage go into the western bays,” Esposito said.
According to the 2010 United States census the current population of Long Island is nearly three million people, making it difficult to realistically decrease the amount of treated sewage, which is released from the outfall pipes of treatment centers like the Bay Park Sewage Treatment Plant.
However one possible solution could be the rebuilding and redirecting of the outfall pipes that discharge treated sewage into the bays and estuaries.
“The difference between our two treatment plants is that one lets out into the ocean. Bay Park however only extends out to Reynolds Channel, all of a quarter mile north of Long Beach,” said Scott Brinton, Long Island Herald staff writer and Hofstra University professor.
“People have talked about the outflow pipe for a long time, saying it’s necessary. But what it unfortunately comes down to is money,” explained Brinton.
The issue surrounding the location of these outfall pipes deals with where the treated sewage ends up.
“It [the bay] doesn’t flush itself out very well. If you would try and say how much effluent and how much waste water we’re dumping into the westerns bays between the Atlantic Beach inlet and Jones Beach inlet, it’s the a little more than the Exxon Valdez,” said Rob Weltner, president of Operation Splash, a Freeport-based organization that leads major clean up efforts across the South Shore aimed at improving water quality. “So it’s the equivalent of taking a super tanker into the western bays every day and discharging 62 million gallons of waste water into a nursery, that’s how we look at it.”
“Over 90% of the nitrogen in the bays comes from those two facilities [Long Beach and Bay Park],” according to Weltner. “We’re saying upgrade the Bay Park sewage plant to the best available technology… like Cedar Creek, they have ocean outfall pipes.”
If the outfall pipes were extended out to the ocean Weltner believes it would make a significant difference closer to home.
“We’re asking that they finish the second half of the project and install the pipeline to bring it out two and a half miles and let the ocean do its thing. It’s not a small amount of water, but it won’t make much of an impact in the ocean.”
While this issue has been developing for nearly three decades, according to a Stony Brook University study, it hasn’t been a pressing matter for local government or residents due to its impact on the immediate future. As the bays and estuaries are damaged more each day certain solutions have been put on the back burner.
“This is really a big technological problem,” Robert Brinkmann, professor and director of Sustainability Studies, Department of Geology, Environment, and Sustainability at Hofstra University points out. “Obviously we can reduce some of the things we use like fertilizers, pesticides etc. But in terms of the sewage problem, it’s really a technology fix and the political will to pay for it. Long Island has a lot of old infrastructure and that’s a huge issue in some areas.”
“We put forth a plan to repair, strengthen and protect our environment, like the waste water treatment plant,” said County Executive Mangano said. “Because of our relationship with the state and federal government, we just recently were rewarded another $455 million so we can get this work done.”
Recently a revitalization plan was announced by Governor Andrew Cuomo to restore and improve Jones Beach State Park. The plan intends to restore the history and aesthetics of the State Park while also strengthening its storm resiliency.
Over the next five years, $65 million has been allocated to the plan, mostly through the New York Works initiative, which to date has already invested nearly $265 million to the State Park system, with another $90 million proposed in the 2014-2015 Executive Budget.
County Executive Mangano met with Senator Charles Schumer and others in Washington D.C. this past January to discuss the county’s hope to receive $600 million in additional funding for the treatment plants. The county estimates that under one plan, a conversion of the Long Beach plant into a pumping station would cost $35 million, while another $690 million would be needed for the outfall pipe.
The governor has directed the New York State Environmental Facilities Corporation (EFC) to work with Nassau County to make zero-interest loans available so the County can undertake all repair and resiliency work as soon as possible
However, despite the county’s attempts to receive more funding, no specific plan regarding the outfall pipes has officially been announced.