Environment & Nature

By John L. Turner

Many Long Islanders look forward to the winter. It’s a time for skiing, skating, sledding and building snow people. It’s the time of year to walk along quiet coastal shorelines devoid of the maddening crowds and, during the holidays, provides the opportunity to reconnect with family and friends. For folks inclined to stay indoors during the cold, it’s a time to catch up on best-selling books accompanied with the obligatory hot chocolate, wine or spirits of a stronger nature (a smooth tasting bourbon, anyone?).

My primary attraction of the winter? Waterfowl or, more precisely, ducks, swans and geese and the more the merrier! Each winter I look forward to the arrival of nearly three dozen colorful waterfowl species that fly south to overwinter on the Island’s ponds, lakes, harbors, bays and near-shore ocean waters, making our island one of the premier waterfowl viewing locations in North America. 

They join several species that are on Long Island year-round, such as mallards and mute swans. They arrive here from far-flung places where they’ve spent the breeding season: northern forested ponds, the tundra wetlands of the far north ranging above the Arctic Circle and North America’s “duck factory” — the prairie pothole region of the Dakotas, Montana and the prairie provinces of Canada.

All waterfowl are avian eye candy and, unlike many other birds that are challenging to identify because they constantly flit around, generally stay put on the water, giving the viewer ample opportunity to enjoy their rich tapestry of color and texture and to make the correct species identification. 

If you think I’m exaggerating about their beauty, as soon as you finish this article, look up the following species – wood duck, harlequin duck, redhead, common eider, hooded merganser, ring-necked duck and long-tailed duck (especially the male). Or how about the little butterball-shaped buffleheads, or the similarly small ruddy duck and green-winged teal. Let’s not forget common goldeneye, graceful northern pintail or larger northern shoveler, which uses its unique spatulated bill to feed on algae, duckweed and small aquatic animals available in freshwater ponds.

One duck I always look forward to seeing is the least showiest — the gadwall (one of the prairie pothole species). They overwinter on ponds throughout the Three Village area and are regular winter visitors on the pond at Frank Melville Memorial Park and the pond extending south of the Old Field Road bridge.

Take the time to look closely at a male gadwall and you’ll agree with one of the monikers birders’ call it -— the duck in the herringbone suit. The feathers are finely barred, with subtle reticulated patterns reminiscent of a maze diagram a child would try to solve; no surprise these beautiful little feathers are prized by fly fisherman for fly tying. As you watch gadwalls don’t be surprised if they turn “bottoms up,” plunging their heads below their surface with only their rumps showing as they feed on aquatic vegetation that sustains them through the winter.

Over the past decade us waterfowl aficionados have more reason to enjoy the winter season, as several “exotic” waterfowl species like barnacle and pink-footed geese have become regular visitors. These are species common to regions in Europe that have begun to nest in northeastern Canada and instead of crossing the Atlantic Ocean to overwinter in Europe, they head south to coastal New England and Long Island. 

And due to taxonomy (the science of biological classification) we get a new species of Canada goose called the cackling goose in our midst, identifiable by its smaller body and shorter neck.

To satisfy my seasonal waterfowl fix I recently visited the bluffs adjacent to the Old Field Lighthouse, overlooking Long Island Sound. I was in search of hardy sea ducks and I wasn’t disappointed. 

Focusing the 40× scope on the rafts of sea ducks, I was quickly rewarded by a wonderful collection of feathered beauty — common goldeneyes, red-breasted mergansers and several species of scoters (black, white-winged and surf).

Also bobbing in the waves was my favorite — the exotic looking long-tailed duck (a future article on this duck awaits). Common loons and a few gull species were sprinkled throughout the calm, near-shore waters. Many ducks were actively feeding, diving to the bottom to forage on mussels and snails. The weather was below freezing and I marveled at the birds’ abilities to thrive in such conditions without a problem.

Not so for me, as my fingers and feet were growing uncomfortably numb after an hour of standing in the relentless chill. But as I ambled back to the warmth of a car, with binoculars slung around my neck and birding scope on my shoulder, forefront in my mind were the beautiful images of all these ducks — an annual gift of the winter season I never tire of receiving. 

If you haven’t yet enjoyed taking a closer look at winter waterfowl, consider it a holiday present wrapped in pretty paper with a gaudy bow. I hope you take the time to unwrap this winter gift in the weeks ahead.

A resident of Setauket, John Turner is conservation chair of the Four Harbors Audubon Society, author of “Exploring the Other Island: A Seasonal Nature Guide to Long Island” and president of Alula Birding & Natural History Tours.

Northport power plant. File photo

When the Town of Huntington’s planning board originally authorized in 1965 a site plan for the Northport power plant’s first generating unit on the shores of the Long Island Sound, the impact on the greater safety, health and general welfare of the community was an overarching concern. In fact, the town’s approval stipulated that plant operators were required to submit emissions reports to the town, which were subject to regular review by town officials. 

Today, the plant has expanded to four units, and while the town is still searching for records, officials do not know the last time the plant submitted an emission report from on-site monitors for a review. Town attorney Nick Ciappetta reported that the town has no say over the Northport Power Plant emissions. The EPA and DEC, he said, have jurisdiction over plant emissions. 

Some lawmakers firmly disagree, and State Sen. Jim Gaughran (D-Northport) is calling for action. 

“The town has had more power than it’s realized,” he said. “It should take whatever action it needs to take.”  

Gaughran said he regularly drives past the plant and smells foul odors. Last year, he requested a state health investigation after learning that graduates of Northport High School Class of 2016 were diagnosed with leukemia and lymphoma, after community members said they want to know if the plant’s emissions are a factor. 

State health department investigators have now expanded their study to look at cancer rates in a broader population to look for patterns. (See story on Page A3) With that investigation underway, Gaughran finds it prudent to take steps to better protect the community. 

Town Council member Joan Cergol agrees. 

“If the Town, in its rezone of the property, or any of its agencies or boards in the 1960s imposed conditions on LILCO to protect the health and safety of Huntington residents, then it stands to reason that its successors should be bound by the same,” she said.

It is unclear what action if in any will be taken, but some are saying additional precautions would be prudent. 

Danielle DeSimone is one several young adults diagnosed with leukemia from the Northport High School Class of 2016, who received a bone marrow transplant and is now in remission. She said she would absolutely support any policies that would better protect the public’s health. 

“May no more families be faced with this burden unnecessarily,” she said in an email. 

As the state’s health investigation continues, and as the town bears the additional burden of fighting LIPA and National Grid, spending $4.2 million to date, many people are looking at the plant with a discerning eye. 

According to the DEC, the Northport Power Plant emissions are in severe violation of state and federal the air pollution standards for nitrous oxide and VOCs, which contribute to ozone. When inhaled, ozone chemicals react chemically with many biological molecules in the respiratory tract, the EPA reports, leading to adverse health effects.

It’s difficult to know whether or not a specific environmental toxin will cause a particular individual to develop cancer or other diseases, according to a 2003 report “Cancer and the Environment” published by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 

But significant sources of VOCs are chemical plants, gasoline pumps, oil-based paints, autobody shops, and print shops. Nitrogen oxides result primarily from high temperature combustion. Significant sources are power plants, industrial furnaces and boilers, and motor vehicles, according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation Permit Review Report from February 2019.

In response to inquiries,  National Grid spokesperson Wendy Ladd said, “we submit our emissions report to the EPA and NY DEC.”

The DEC states that ozone is a regional air pollutant and most human and economic activity in the NYC metro area contribute in some way to ozone exceedences. 

“If the DEC finds any facility poses an imminent threat to public health or the environment, the agency works to address the situation immediately,” said DEC spokesman Kevin Frazier.  

Stock photo

Telescopes 101

Is there a telescope gathering dust in your closet because you don’t know how to use it? Have you been thinking of buying a telescope and want to know what to consider before making a purchase? Jeff Norwood of Camera Concepts & Telescope Solutions will answer all your questions at a workshop held at the Ward Melville Heritage Organization’s Educational & Cultural Center, 97P Main St., Stony Brook on Saturday, Jan. 25 from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. $40 fee. To register, call 631-689-5888.

Community members and public officials gather in Smithtown for a public hearing on the development of the Flowerfield/Gyrodyne property in St. James. Photo by David Luces

By Cindy Smith

As a Smithtown native who mobilized my neighbors to study the Gyrodyne project and speak at the hearing, and having spoken myself, I am gratified at what was predominantly an open-minded reception. Clearly many residents had not been informed of the grossly negative impact that project might have, and why they should insist the Smithtown Planning Board ask more questions before rubber-stamping the proposal.

Cindy Smith. Photo by Jim Lennon

Based on research by dozens of concerned residents, including nationally known environmental advocates like Carl Safina, we testified to evident prior use of lead arsenate, methyl bromides and excessive nitrates at Flowerfield — a fact not mentioned in the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS). We documented how the Planning Board excluded data concerning traffic, provided evidence of potential harm to Stony Brook Harbor and surrounding waterways, and — disturbingly — rebuffed regional officials like Brookhaven Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) who sought to provide information about shared infrastructure and planned regional development.

We also presented economic evidence that many jobs potentially created by the development will produce low-paying, minimum-wage positions — and that the property might actually be removed from the tax base, causing it to shrink rather than grow.

Lastly, we shared our concern that the development will trigger more high-density use along historic 25A, creating more suburban sprawl.

As a descendant of Richard “Bull” Smith, I envision a shared North Shore future that values both our history and our tomorrows. I hope Smithtown residents will visit us online at www.UnitedCommunitiesAgainstGyrodune.com and at Facebook.com/UnitedCommunitiesAgainstGyrodyne.

The conversation is not over! The Planning Board will accept written comments through 5 p.m. Jan. 24. Residents should also communicate their concerns directly to Smithtown Supervisor Ed Wehrheim (R).

Thank you, Smithtown, for welcoming your neighbors into the planning process. 

Cindy Smith

United Communities Against Gyrodyne Development community group

Northport Middle School closes after decades of contamination concerns.

Northport-East Northport Union Free School District Superintendent Rob Banzer has decided, effective immediately, to close Northport Middle School for the remainder of the 2019-20 school year after P.W. Grosser Consulting, the environmental firm who has been testing soil around the school property, found on Saturday elevated levels of benzene in two separate septic systems on site.

Classes for the Northport Middle School students were cancelled for Tuesday, Jan. 21 and Wed. Jan. 22, and will resume on Jan. 23 in new locations.

“It is important to note that preliminary air testing indicated no observable detection of volatile organic compounds or VOCs, which includes benzene, inside the building, or from soil samples, as well as at the source of the septic tanks,” Banzer said in an email notice to parents sent at 4:00 p.m. Saturday afternoon. “However, in the best interest of students and staff and in consideration of ongoing testing and remediation, the building will be closed for the balance of the school year.”

During an unscheduled workshop with board members Wednesday,  Jan. 15, Banzer presented and reviewed a decisive contingency relocation plan for Northport Middle School students that ultimately became necessary to implement just days later.

The plan, developed with goals identified by all stakeholders, maintains the school’s curriculum, allows for spring sports, and enables students to access science labs. It was considered the best, least disruptive option.

As discussed during the workshop, transportation is feasible, but may require that some students change buses at the William J. Brosnan School building on Laurel Avenue. Additional drivers and buses might alleviate the need for transferring, Banzer said, but could be tough to secure.

“Although a great deal of the plan is already in place, we will need Tuesday and Wednesday to refine the logistics for staff and students, including scheduling, transportation and food service,” Banzer stated in his note to parents.

As explained to parents and reviewed in the Jan. 15 workshop:

  • Northport Middle School 8th graders will relocate to a special wing of the high school.
  • Northport Middle School 7th graders will relocate to East Northport Middle School.

Originally, Northport Middle School 6th graders were expected to be relocated to either Norwood Avenue or Bellerose Elementary schools. But, as explained in a letter sent to parents Jan. 20, the district opted to keep all of the 6th graders together at Norwood Avenue school. The gifted and talented program will instead be relocated to Bellerose

Suffolk County Department of Health Services requires that the site be remediated to remove the benzene. The health department also requires remediation for high levels of mercury and silver found in the leaching pools outside of the schools G-wing. Remediation plans are still under development.

Many parents have been conflicted about sending their children to the school. Students and staff have complained about unidentified foul odors that regularly surface inside the building. Some parents, retired teachers and community members blame chemicals previously identified on school grounds as a potential cause for their illnesses. As the environmental investigation continues, some parents are breathing a sign of relief.

“We are happy to know that the testing can be completed with the children and staff relocated to safe locations,” said Bethany Watts.

Nissequogue River State Park, located on the grounds of the former Kings Park Psych Center. Photo by Donna Deddy

A piece of legislation that would have begun the process of creating a master plan for the Nissequogue River State Park was vetoed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) Jan. 1, putting the future development of the park up in the air. 

“The park described in this bill is the subject  of  recent  litigation against  the  park’s office  and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation,” Cuomo stated. “In light of the fact  that  the  litigation  addresses  an environmental review conducted by the State related to uses in this very park, it would be inappropriate to sign this legislation.”

The park, located on the grounds of the former Kings Park Psychiatric Center, has been a popular destination for area residents who enjoy hiking, jogging, bird-watching and accessing the local waterways via its marina. But many of the site’s derelict buildings prevent the place from being truly enjoyable. Many people find the old institution creepy. 

New York State lawmakers passed a bipartisan bill in June sponsored by Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport) and Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) that would have required state parks officials to begin a master plan for the park. 

“If there is any park that is in need of a master plan it is Nissequogue River State Park,” he said. “The pieces are already in place and were working toward that.”

– John McQuaid

The introduction of a master plan would have included input from residents, state agencies and other stakeholders. It would also include assessing park resources, outlining future goals/cost of development and allowing the demolition of a number of dilapidated buildings on the grounds. 

John McQuaid, president of the Nissequogue River State Park Foundation, said he was disappointed to hear of the governor’s decision. 

“If there is any park that is in need of a master plan it is Nissequogue River State Park,” he said. “The pieces are already in place and were working toward that.”

McQuaid admitted that he believes the veto may have been political, stemming from the foundation’s decision to sue the state park’s office and Department of Environmental Conservation over the siting of a DEC Division of Marines Resources building in the park. 

Smithtown, state and local officials including County Executive Steve Bellone (D) attended a rally Dec. 20 in support of the proposed project.  

According to Smithtown and county officials, the state project is expected to be an economic boost that would bring  in approximately 500 construction jobs, 100 permanent positions, plus the added year-round police presence in the state park. 

“We have never been against a DEC building on the property,” McQuaid said. “But we were against the location of the building, if we had the master plan process we could avoid this, everyone would have their say and input.”

The proposed site of the building would be in close proximity to the park’s marina. McQuaid deemed the location “inappropriate.”  

State officials who helped sponsor the master plan legislation were left confused about Cuomo’s decision.  

“The veto made no sense, there is an obvious need for a master plan. It feels like the state has walked away from the property.”

– Steve Englebright

“I am both shocked and disappointed by this action and feel like our community deserves better,” Flanagan said in a statement. “Unfortunately, Gov. Andrew Cuomo decided to veto this legislation instead of joining us in protecting our community, our environment and our way of life.”

Since 2006, Flanagan said his office worked with former Gov. George Pataki (R) to ensure the land is protected by halting the sale of land to developers, adding additional land to the park system. In addition, they secured over $31 million in state funding and worked with local leaders to ensure continued efforts to preserve and remediate the property.

Flanagan said he stands ready to work with all interested parties to see if they can reach an agreeable compromise on this important issue. 

“I continue to be optimistic that we can work out a solution, and will return to Albany in January ready to work to find an amicable solution that protects the residents of Kings Park,” he said. 

Englebright offered similar sentiments and was hopeful lawmakers would revisit this issue. 

“The veto made no sense, there is an obvious need for a master plan,” he said. “It feels like the state has walked away from the property.”

McQuaid echoed the state officials’ thoughts saying the foundation is anxious to sit down with the parks office and state officials so they come to some type of agreement. 

Previously, there had been discussions about repurposing park land for a sports field, a concert area and a community center.

The PFAS Action Act of 2019 (H.R. 535) would regulate per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances and assist local communities in cleaning up water contamination. File photo by Giselle Barkley

Water quality has been an important issue on Long Island as new containments continue to emerge. A piece of legislation passed Jan. 10 by the House would help mitigate a group of man-made chemical substances. 

The PFAS Action Act of 2019 (H.R. 535) would regulate per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances and assist local communities in cleaning up water contamination. 

“When it comes to our communities’ drinking water, there is no room for error,” said U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY-1), a member of the Congressional PFAS Task Force, in a statement. “With Long Island identified as the area with the most amount of emerging contaminants in our drinking water compared to the rest of New York State, all levels of government must act with urgency to help protect local families’ drinking supplies. “

The bill would also direct the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to designate the chemicals as a hazardous substance to prevent further environmental contamination and require cleanup of contaminated sites, set air emission limits for the hazardous substances, prohibit unsafe incineration of PFAS, limit the introduction of new PFAS chemicals into commerce, identify health risks by requiring comprehensive health testing and monitoring for PFAS in drinking water, require a drinking water standard for at least PFOA and PFOS that protects public health and provide funding through the PFAS Infrastructure Grant Program to assist local communities with impacted water systems.

Peter Scully, deputy Suffolk County executive and water czar, said the legislation is vital. 

“The new law is important in that it recognizes the urgency of the need for EPA to act quickly to address the potential health risks associated with these emerging contaminants, while at the same time acknowledging the cost impact of more stringent regulation on public water suppliers and, by extension, on people they supply water to,” he said. 

Scully added the law addresses the cause of the problem by requiring manufacturers to submit reports about how much PFAS they produced and by requiring the EPA to add pots, pans and cooking utensils that do not contain PFAS to its Safer Choice Program. 

“The bill could be a huge step forward in the effort to get ahead of his problem if it is fully implemented,” Scully said. 

 

Residents of all ages participate in the annual regatta and barbecue, one of several events that the group coordinates with the help of the foundation’s student board. Photo from Nissequogue River Foundation

Nissequogue River State Park, located on the grounds of the former Kings Park Psychiatric Center, has been a popular destination for area residents who enjoy hiking, jogging, bird-watching and the marina. 

In 2008, the community formed the Nissequogue River State Park Foundation. Its mission: to enhance and beautify the park for present and future generations. 

Since New York State began incrementally transferring the hospital’s grounds to the park’s office first in 2000 and then again in 2006, the foundation has worked tirelessly to make important improvements to the 521-arce site. 

“I’m proud of the work the board has been able to accomplish, it’s been hard work but we’ve been successful on a lot things.”

– John McQuaid

John McQuaid joined the organization as a volunteer seven years ago and in 2013 became its chairman. He said the non-for-profit has contributed remarkable improvements to the park, like removing buildings, forming youth groups and getting a master plan approved in Albany. 

“I’m proud of the work the board has been able to accomplish,” he said. “It’s been hard work, but we’ve been successful on a lot of things.”

Improvements began back in 2006, when the state demolished a number of buildings, tunnels, roadways, walkways and removed hazardous materials thanks to funding secured by Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport). The objective now is figuring out what to do with the other existing buildings on the old hospital grounds. There have been discussions about repurposing some land for sports fields, a concert area and a community center.

Three years ago, the foundation created a student board and began working with local high school students. 

“It has been terrific on a lot of levels; it has given them a voice on the [foundation] board and real-life experience they can use in the future,” McQuaid said. 

The members of the student board are tasked with helping to fundraise, promote and run a number of events for the foundation including the Regatta on the River, the annual Turkey Trot and 5K Sunset Run. 

“We are very proud of the work they’ve done, they are really passionate about our mission and promoting this ‘diamond in the rough’ to the community,” the chairman said. 

The group has also been backed by Charlie Reichert, owner of five IGA supermarkets in Northport, who sponsors all the foundation’s events. Reichert said the park has the potential to be the Central Park of Long Island. Over the years, the business owner has given his time and resources to the foundation. In 2018 alone, he donated $1 million to the NYS Department of Parks to help complete renovation of the park’s administrative offices.

Residents of all ages participate in the annual regatta. Photo from Nissequogue River Foundation

 Mike Rosato, former chairman and current board member, said Reichert’s contributions over the years have been instrumental to the organization. 

“He has been the anchor of the foundation, we’ve been able to accomplish so much and make a lot of progress on the park,” he said. 

Rosato lauded McQuaid for his efforts to get the younger generation involved. 

“It is great to be able to get young people involved in the foundation and that care about the park in general,” he said.

Rosato also praised the group’s efforts into bringing the community together for its event. 

“[On average] 2,000 people have attended the annual Turkey Trot, it has become a family tradition,” he said.  

While the foundation has made strides throughout the years, McQuaid stressed the need for a master plan for further development of the park. 

In June, New York State lawmakers passed a bill sponsored by Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport) and Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) that would require state park officials to begin a master plan for the park. The foundation is still waiting for Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D) signature on the bill. 

The introduction of a master plan would include input from residents, state agencies and other stakeholders. It would also include assessing park resources, outlining future goals/cost of development and allowing the demolishing of a number of dilapidated buildings on the grounds. 

“The master plan is for the next phase and the future of the park,” McQuaid said. 

In the meantime, the chairman is encouraged by the progress the foundation has helped steward at this point. 

“The foundation is a vehicle for the community, it is not just one individual, it takes a group effort to get things done,” McQuaid said.  

Cayla and Iris Rosenhagen pose for a photo during a beach cleanup at Cedar Beach last August. Photo by Kyle Barr

Approximately 8 million tons of plastic waste is dumped into the oceans each year, according to the nonprofit Ocean Conservancy. Long Islanders have seen what plastic waste can do to their waterways and beaches firsthand.

Cayla and Iris Rosenhagen, two 14-year-old twins from Selden, wanted to change that and in July 2019 they created a beach cleanup initiative fittingly called the Beach Bucket Brigade.

Throughout the summer, the duo hosted seven beach cleanups, and with the help of about 300 volunteers they were able to remove more than 23,500 pieces of litter off Long Island beaches — 45 percent of that was plastic waste.

The sisters said now that they are not too focused and busy planning events, they’ve been able to reflect on the success they’ve accomplished these past few months.

“We are ecstatic, everything has gone so well, and everyone has been so supportive of us,” Cayla said.

From a young age, the sisters have had a keen interest in the environment, nature and animals. They said they would go out on their own and do cleanups and wanted to see if they could get more people involved.

“They really thought of everything, they’ve done this all on their own and really made their vision a reality.”

– Jane Bonner

“We had the idea for a couple of months and we wanted to find a way to get the community involved,” Iris said. “We reached out to the Town [of Brookhaven] and they liked what we had in mind.”

Brookhaven Councilman Kevin LaValle (R-Selden) said it was great seeing young people take the initiative for a good cause.

“The presentation they gave us was so well done, we were immediately all on board and wanted to help in any way we could,” LaValle said. “It has been a great collaboration and the whole program/initiative really sets up well for the future.”

One of the events hosted by the twins included a Beach Bucket Brigade Books at the Beach event that involved a story time for young kids before heading out to clean the beach. At all cleanups, for each bucket of trash volunteers returned they were given a raffle ticket in which they could win eco-friendly prizes, recycled toys and products donated by a number of local businesses.

“They really thought of everything,” said Brookhaven Councilwoman Jane Bonner (R-Rocky Point), who attended one of the beach cleanups at Cedar Beach back in August. “They’ve done this all on their own and really made their vision a reality.”

For the duo’s effort, the town honored them by making Sept. 12 Cayla and Iris Rosenhagen Day. They also appointed them to the youth board, which advises the Brookhaven Youth Bureau about issues affecting young people.

The twin sisters said they have already begun formulating ideas and events for next spring and summer. They also stressed that there are small things people can do to alleviate the abundance of plastic waste.

“What kind of eco-friendly [New Year’s] resolution are you going to make?” they said. “Everybody can do their part and cut out the amount of plastic they use.”

Like LaValle, Bonner has been impressed with what the Rosenhagen twins have accomplished.

“We have been blown away by their presence and passion, this is not the last time you will hear of Cayla and Iris — they are going places and they have a bright future,” Bonner said.

To find more information about Beach Bucket Brigade and future events visit their Facebook page.

Long Island Coastal Steward volunteer Bill Negra, president Denis Mellett and treasurer Mark Campo at Mount Sinai Harbor. Photo by Kyle Barr

By Peggy Spellman Hoey

Coastal Steward Long Island has a three-pronged plan of attack in an unending, dirty battle — the one all environmentalists have been fighting — to keep local beaches and waters clean for years now. And it seems to be working. 

Coastal Steward board members and local divers plunge into Port Jefferson Harbor Aug. 18. Photo from Coastal Steward

What started out as loosely organized beach cleanups led by a local resident has spread to incorporate aquaculture conservation, restoring shellfish to Mount Sinai and Port Jefferson harbors, and marine education teaching youngsters about marine life and water quality. Its education programs include harbor seining and marsh exploration, shellfish hatchery tours and plankton microbiology, in which students use microscopes to identify plankton. 

Through its fundraising efforts, the group is also able to subsidize busing costs for schools that cannot fund field trips to the center.

The organization’s long-standing partnership with the Town of Brookhaven at its beach and marina complex on Long Island Sound in Mount Sinai allows for its educational programs to be run out of the Mount Sinai Marine Environmental Stewardship Center. In the complex’s maricultural center, the oyster seeds are grown for eventual release into the harbor.

Brookhaven Councilwoman Jane Bonner (R-Rocky Point) called the organization a good partner and a nice complement to the town and its work to restore water quality.

“They are all about water quality,” she said. “Their message is the right one and their heart is in the right place.”

In addition to its beach-cleaning projects, about four years ago, the group began leading underwater cleanups, recruiting local divers to volunteer their services to remove debris such as garbage, mechanical parts, and household items like furniture that has ended up on the water’s bottom.

The addition of educational programs and underwater cleanups evolved from the group’s efforts to clean beaches after organizers realized something had to be done to address the trash coming in with the tide.

“There is no end to beach cleanups, but if we educate before it gets in the water, we keep it out of the water in the first place,” said Denis Mellett, a dive instructor who serves as the president of Coastal Steward LI.

Ashly Carabetta, the organization’s executive director, said the group has also seen success with one of its newer programs, the Youth Ocean Conservation Summit, where youngsters get to listen to guest speakers, including scientists and educators such as aquanaut Fabien Cousteau, a documentary filmmaker and the grandson of Jacques-Yves Cousteau. 

Long Island Coastal Steward volunteer Bill Negra checks oysters cages in Mount Sinai Harbor. Photo by Kyle Barr

“It’s just a great opportunity for these kids to get to be surrounded by people in the field [of marine science] and talk amongst themselves,” she said.

Another part of the program includes a segment where participants break off into groups and develop a project for which they apply for grant money and then work over the next year to complete the project. The projects can be anything from creating a children’s book about water quality to devising a plan to limit single-plastic use in schools.

Giving the group a final plug, Bonner noted it is always looking for volunteers, and it’s a well-rounded organization with which anyone of any age can become involved.

“This is a nice way to be involved and you are really making a difference — beach cleaning and water quality,” she said.

Carabetta noted the importance of a beach cleanup is that anyone can do it, but the organization does have other roles to fill.

“We are looking for volunteers, part-time educators to try to expand our reach in many ways,” she said.