Times of Middle Country

On June 29, Centereach High School held its 2019 commencement ceremony under sunny skies.
The Centereach Fire Department was on hand for the presentation of colors, while Faiza Syed delivered the valedictorian speech and Samantha Cotes the salutatory address.

By Donna Deedy

donna@tbrnewsmedia.com

“It’s more than a pretty garden,” said Chris Clapp, a marine scientist for The Nature Conservancy. “It’s a biological process that relies on plants, wood chips and microbes to remove nitrogen in wastewater before it flows back into the environment.”

On June 24, County Executive Steve Bellone (D) joined Clapp with a conglomerate of representatives from both government and the private sector at The Nature Conservancy’s Upland Farms Sanctuary in Cold Spring Harbor to unveil a state-of-the-art method for reducing and eliminating nitrogen from wastewater. 

The county expects the new system to be a replacement for cesspools and septic systems, which are blamed for the seeping of nitrogen into Long Island waterways, causing red tides, dead zones and closed beaches.

County Executive Steve Bellone and Nancy Kelley of The Nature Conservancy plant the new garden at Upland Farms.

The issue is a serious concern, Bellone said, as he introduced the county’s Deputy Executive Peter Scully, who is spearheading the county’s Reclaim Our Water Initiative and serves as the Suffolk’s water czar. “Anytime a government appoints a water czar, you know you have problems to address.”

Scully, formerly the director for the Long Island region of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, said six other septic alternatives are currently approved.    

Long Island is reportedly one of the most densely populated locations in the country without adequate wastewater treatment. Currently, there are 360,000 antiquated cesspools and septic systems. The county expects to set nitrogen reduction targets for watershed areas where replacement holds the most benefit. 

The technique, called a vegetated circulating gravel system, is composed of an underground network that essentially connects the drains and toilets of a home or office to plant life and microbial action. It works in two stages to denitrify the wastewater. The first phase discharges wastewater into an underground gravel bed covered with a surprisingly small garden of native plants that takes up nitrogen through its roots. The water is then circulated into an underground box of wood chips that convert the remaining nitrogen into gas, before it’s circulated back to the gravel bed. Once the water is denitrified, it’s dispersed through a buried leaching field. 

The county partnered with the Nature Conservancy to develop and implement the system for its Upland Farms Sanctuary. The sanctuary is located a half-mile from Cold Spring Harbor, where water quality has worsened during the last 12 years to the point where the state is officially proposing to designate it an impaired water body. 

“The Conservancy is proud to stand alongside the county and our partners to celebrate this exciting new system that taps into the power of nature to combat the nitrogen crisis, putting us on a path to cleaner water,” said Nancy Kelley, Long Island chapter director for The Nature Conservancy.  

During the experimental phase the system reduced by half the amount of nitrogen discharged from wastewater. A similar technique has been effective at removing up to 90% in other parts of the country. The system’s designers at Stony Brook University’s Center for Clean Water Technology aim to completely remove nitrogen from discharges.  The Upland Farms offices and meeting hall system, which encompasses 156 square feet,  serves the equivalent of two to three homes. 

Suffolk County Legislator William “Doc” Spencer (D-Centerport) said that denitrification efforts work. The Centerport Yacht Club’s beach was closed for seven years due to water quality issues and reopened in 2015 after the Northport sewer plant upgraded to a denitrification system. Improvements to the harbor storm drain discharges, and a public lawn care campaign about curbing the use of fertilizers, also reportedly helped. 

The county has reached a critical juncture and beginning July 1, its new sanitary code for septic systems takes effect, which permits only denitrifying technology.

Justin Jobin, who works on environmental projects with the Suffolk County Department of Health Services, said that he expects to gain approval for a pilot program to accelerate the vegetated circulating gravel system’s public introduction, which could be approved as soon as this summer.  The design can be modified, its developers said, to serve single homes or large businesses. In addition to removing nitrogen, the system can also naturally filter out pharmaceuticals and personal care products.  Its impacts on 1,4-dioxane are being studied. 

Visit www.ReclaimOurWater.info for additional information. 

Photos by Donna Deedy

Bethel Hobbs Community Farm in Centereach holds an annual community race to raise money for the farm. Photo by Kyle Barr

To address the critical shortfall of skilled young and beginning farmers and ranchers, congressional leaders, including Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), introduced June 13 the Young Farmer Success Act. If adopted, the bill would encourage careers in agriculture, by adding farmers and ranchers to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, an existing program that currently includes teachers, nurses, first responders and other public service professions. Under the program, eligible public service professionals who make 10 years of income-driven student loan payments can have the balance of their loans forgiven.

U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin speaks during an interview at TBR News Media. Photo by Kevin Redding

“Our country’s farmers are part of the backbone of our nation, and while they are critical to ensuring American families have food to put on the table, all too often the next generation of farmers is finding that a career in agriculture makes it difficult to put food on their own table,” Zeldin said. “After graduating college, aspiring farmers are saddled with crippling student loan debt and the daunting costs of agricultural businesses, oftentimes driving them from a career feeding our country.” 

The new legislation will allow the next generation of farmers to pursue a career serving the American people, eliminating the disincentive to study agriculture in school and getting them on the farm when they graduate.

Farming is an expensive business to enter, in part because of skyrocketing land prices. Young and beginning farmers often see small profits or even losses in their first years of business. With the majority of existing farmers nearing retirement age, and very few young people entering the farming or ranching profession, America is beginning to face an agricultural crisis. Since the Dust Bowl, the federal government has taken steps to support farmers, and the Young Farmer Success Act supports farmers through a different approach — finding a tangible pathway to pay off student loans that will offer incentives to a new generation of career farmers.

“Eighty-one percent of the young farmers who responded to our 2017 national survey hold a bachelor’s degree or an advanced degree,” Martin Lemos, National Young Farmers Coalition interim executive director, said. “This means there is a very small population of beginning farmers without student loan debt. With the average age of farmers now nearing 60 years, and farmers over 65 outnumbering those under 35 by 6:1, we need to do more for the next generation of farmers to succeed. We are grateful for the bill’s bipartisan champions, Representatives Joe Courtney (D-CT), Glenn ‘G.T.’ Thompson (R-PA), Josh Harder (D-CA) and Lee Zeldin. With the support of Congress, we will encourage those who wish to pursue a career in farming to serve their country by building a brighter future for U.S. agriculture.”

In 2011, National Young Farmers Coalition conducted a survey of 1,000 young farmers and found 78 percent of respondents struggled with a lack of capital. A 2014 follow-up survey of 700 young farmers with student loan debt found that the average burden of student loans was $35,000. The same study also found 53 percent of respondents are currently farming, but have a hard time making their student loan payments and another 30 percent are interested in farming, but haven’t pursued it as a career because their salary as a farmer wouldn’t be enough to cover their student loan payments.

From left to right: Laura Curran, Peter King, Tom Suozzi and Lee Zeldin urge tighter federal rules to protect drinking water and Long Islanders health. Photo from Lee Zeldin’s office

The Long Island congressional delegation has reached a tipping point. They’re ready for the Environmental Protection Agency to take action to better address concerns over water quality and its potential impact on human health.

U.S. Reps. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), Kathleen Rice (D-Garden City), Peter King (R-Seaford) and Tom Suozzi (D-Glen Cove) were joined June 18 by local elected officials and environmental advocates at the Town of Hempstead Water Department to demand that the EPA sets maximum contaminant levels for drinking water and act to help protect Long Islanders from contaminated drinking supplies.

“When it comes to our communities’ drinking water, there is no room for error,” Zeldin said following the press conference. “This is the drinking water for so many Long Islanders, and failure to act is not an option.”

New York Public Interest Research Group or NYPIRG, found in a recent study that Long Island has the most contaminated drinking water in New York state. Several contaminants, such as 1,4-dioxane and per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances — known as PFAS — were detected above the EPA’s reference concentrations, which are health-based assessments. 

The problem is widespread. Locally, the chemical 1,4-dioxane was found in at least two private drinking wells in Smithtown and also in wells serviced by Suffolk County Water Authority, including the Flower Hill Road well field in Halesite, as reported in The Times of Smithtown April 30 article, “County acts to address drinking water contamination concerns.” 

Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, said that 65 out of 80 commonly used household products that the organization had tested included at least trace amounts of the potentially toxic chemical 1,4-dioxane. CCE is calling for a ban on its use.

Zeldin is a member of the Congressional PFAS Task Force which was established to address the urgent threat of PFAS to help better protect communities from the harmful effects of the chemicals.

The use of industrial strength firefighting foam during past training exercises, such as those undertaken at the Naval Weapons Industrial Reserve Plant in Calverton and Francis S. Gabreski Air National Guard Base, have been known to introduce chemicals, such as PFAS, into the surrounding groundwater, potentially contaminating drinking supplies.

PFAS is a man-made substance that is persistent in the human body and the environment. It can also be found in nonstick products, polishes, waxes, paints, cleaning products and packaging.

Some PFAS are no longer manufactured in the U.S., according to the EPA website, but can be produced internationally and imported to U.S. in consumer goods such as carpets, textiles, paper and packaging, rubber and plastics. 

The EPA Region 2 Office spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment before press time. 

Installation of the pre-treatment septic tank at the O'Dwyer's home in Strong's Neck. Photo from Tom O'Dwyer

When it came to their cesspool being replaced, one Three Village couple based their choice on their concern for local waterways.

Excavation at the O’Dwyer’s home in Strong’s Neck. Photo from Tom O’Dwyer

Tom and Carolyn O’Dwyer decided to install a low-nitrogen septic system on their Strong’s Neck property this spring after learning about the treatment process. Unlike a cesspool where bacteria and nitrogen can seep out, and into local water sources, Tom O’Dwyer said in their new system water percolates through a septic system, and the advanced process removes more nitrogen than a cesspool. Excessive nitrogen can affect the oxygen level in water where it is below the necessary levels to support marine life.

“It’s good for the environment, and it’s good technology,” he said. “I do this stuff every day, so I figured I would lead by example.”

O’Dwyer, an environmental engineer, recently attended classes offered by the county to learn about the systems and the grants Suffolk has to offer to those who choose to install them.

As of July 1, Suffolk County residents who voluntarily decide to replace their cesspools will need to replace them with a system consisting of a septic tank and leaching pool at a minimum. Contractors will need to register the system with the Department of Health Services. While residents can choose a conventional septic system, another option is an advanced device that removes more nitrogen. County grants of up to $20,000 are available for residents who qualify, where the county has been offering the grants for the last two years. There is also an additional state grant of up to $10,000, which can mean a total of up to $30,000.

O’Dwyer said he and his wife bought their house four years ago, and while the cesspool hadn’t given them too many problems, after hearing about the low-nitrogen units, he thought it was the best way to go, especially with living 500 feet from the water, a part of their home they love.

“Our family enjoys swimming, boating, fishing and clamming in the local waterways, so clean water is very important to us,” he said.

“Our family enjoys swimming, boating, fishing and clamming in the local waterways, so clean water is very important to us.”

— Tom O’Dwyer

Involved with larger projects like past work on the Tappan Zee Bridge, he began hearing about low-nitrogen installation projects out East and decided to start learning about the systems and soon began designing them.

O’Dwyer said so far most of the work he has seen has been on the East End of Long Island, and he’s trying to get the word out to his friends about the grants and is currently working on three different homes on the North Shore where the homeowners are tired of their cesspool problems.

He said he found the process to apply for a grant from the county easy. He filled out an application and submitted a deed and tax forms. He said residents can then pick an engineer to design the system and pick a contractor off the list of county-approved contractors. Suffolk then directly pays the contractor.

The engineer said a site can be difficult at times due to certain ground conditions, and homeowners may have to pay more than the average of nearly $20,000. Field testing may be required to see if the ground is clay or sand and how well the soil will drain. As for engineers, the price averages around $2,500.

Treated wastewater effluent sample bottle, right, beside spring water bottle, left. Photo from Tom O’Dwyer

Peter Scully, deputy county executive for administration, said Suffolk County sanitary code requires that the low-nitrogen systems treat down to at least 19 milligrams per liter of total nitrogen, and it’s the most stringent requirement in the northeast. He said while the total nitrogen from cesspool discharge is said to be around 65 milligrams per liter, “the health department staff routinely see samples with concentrations of total nitrogen far in excess of 65 mg/l and in excess of 100 mg/l.” He added that conventional septic systems discharge  61 mg of nitrogen per liter, and the low-nitrogen systems create a 70 percent reduction when compared to cesspools.

George Hoffman, co-founder of the Setauket Harbor Task Force, calls those who upgrade to low-nitrogen septic systems “harbor heroes” because, he said, they care enough about water quality to do the right thing.

“It’s good to hear that homeowners in our area are installing low-nitrogen septic systems and are having a positive experience and setting an example for their neighbors,” he said. “This is especially important on Strong’s Neck where the transit time for groundwater to Setauket Harbor and Conscience Bay is less than two years.”

Suffolk County Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket), a proponent of the bill, said the code was updated to match what was passed in 1972 for new residential construction where conventional septic systems with a leeching pool needed to be installed.

“They knew way back — almost 50 years ago — they knew the cesspool itself was not enough,” she said. “It’s essentially a hole in the ground.”

Hahn said studies of subwatersheds in the county, where more than 70 percent of structures are not hooked up to sewer systems, have shown quite a bit of nitrogen from residential waste.

She said while the low-nitrogen septic systems are not yet mandated like the conventional septic systems, it’s possible as early as next year that they could be for new home construction.

“They knew way back — almost 50 years ago — they knew the cesspool itself was not enough.”

— Kara Hahn

Hahn said the commitment of the county executive, legislators and county staff members has included working with the wastewater industry to find ways homeowners can switch over to the new system, how to install and to know exactly what the systems do.

“It’s been a tremendous accomplishment to get where we’re at,” she said.

She said many residents might save money with the low-nitrogen systems if faced with replacing a cesspool or at least break even instead of choosing a conventional septic system. She did say there is a small electric charge based on the system annually and a little more maintenance that residents should be aware of when choosing the system.

As for the grants, it must be the applicant’s primary residence occupied year-round. Most residents who have applied have qualified, Hahn said.

Last week O’Dwyer sampled his new system, and he said the effluent looked clear with no odor. The field samples also showed reduced nitrogen levels. The environmental engineer said he and his wife are happy they installed the system, and now through his business, he plans to help others do the same.

“My whole career I was searching for something,” he said. “I was passionate about a lot of things, but this intertwines my passion and my hobbies with my education and engineering background, so it’s a nice match.”

Interested residents can call Suffolk County Department of Health Services, 631-852-5811, for more information.

People at the June 7 rally held signs supporting Green Light NY bill. Photo by David Luces

After a contentious back and forth between state Democrats and Republicans, the green light bill, a measure that would allow undocumented immigrants to obtain a driver’s license in New York State, passed the New York State Senate June 17 and was signed into law by Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D). 

The vote makes New York the 13th state in the nation to allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses. In the past, undocumented immigrants in New York were allowed to have driver’s licenses if they passed the required tests and proved their residency. In 2001, former governor George Pataki reversed the measure via executive order.

“Driving in New York State is a privilege, not a guaranteed right.”

— John Kennedy Jr.

Proponents of the bill say that the bill would improve public safety and the economy.

“Today is a historic day for New York’s hard working immigrant community,” said Steven Choi, the executive director at the New York Immigration Coalition. “We are glad to see that Governor Cuomo did the right thing by signing the Green Light NY bill into law.” 

In the lead up to the vote there was some hesitation of support from some Democrats, which critics attributed to being wary of backlash to the bill and its impact on the 2020 election year.

Jay Jacobs, The Nassau County Democratic chairman, warned the six senators who represent Long Island about the potential political backlash of supporting the bill, according to an article in Gothamist.  

Jacobs told Gothamist that he personally supports the legislation but believes the bill is too polarizing to pursue in the current legislative session.

The legislation moved forward without the support of the six Long Island Democratic senators, who all voted no, as well as three other Republican senators. 

“I am disappointed that the state lawmakers in Albany voted to approve this terrible piece of legislation,” John Kennedy, Suffolk County comptroller and county executive candidate, said in a statement. “Driving in New York State is a privilege, not a guaranteed right, and we should not be extending privileges to those who do not follow the law. I strongly urge the Governor to do the right thing and veto this legislation.”

Other Republicans in the state Legislature shared opposition to the green light bill.  

“This legislation is an outrage to law-abiding New Yorkers, as well as to new Americans that have taken the appropriate steps to become citizens legally,” New York State Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport) said in a letter. “The overwhelming majority of New Yorkers oppose issuing driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants. And yet, that is exactly what Senate Democrats did.”

The Long Island Democratic Senate Delegation said in a statement that they value the important contributions made by immigrants to the local economy and communities. 

“Following countless meetings with stakeholders, residents, and advocates on the implications of this bill, our vote is based on the continued existence of serious concerns raised by stakeholders and law enforcement,” the statement read. “We will continue to stand together in the best interest of Long Islanders.”

Some lawmakers shared concerns that the  Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency could possibly obtain driver’s information and use it for deporting individuals.

Cuomo also raised similar concerns before the vote, stating that he would veto the bill if the federal government would be able to access driver’s information that could be used for deportation. He then asked the state attorney general to review the bill and would sign the bill if it didn’t give federal authorities access to DMV databases. 

State Attorney General Letitia James (D) wrote a statement the night of vote. 

“The legislation is well crafted and contains ample protections for those who apply for driver’s licenses,” James said in a statement. “If this bill is enacted and challenged in court, we will vigorously defend it.”

The bill would require undocumented immigrants to take a driver’s license exam and be able to buy car insurance. The measure would go into effect in 180 days and undocumented immigrants could get licenses starting
in December.

Dr. Michael Alan Bernstein, left, with outgoing president Samuel L. Stanley Jr. Photo from SBU

Stony Brook University is preparing for the next academic year.

On June 20, SBU President Dr. Samuel L. Stanley Jr. sent an email to students, faculty and staff announcing that the State University of New York Board of Trustees appointed Provost Michael Bernstein interim president of SBU. The new position will be effective on or about Aug. 1.

“Michael is an outstanding selection for this role,” Stanley said in the email. “During his three-year tenure as provost and senior vice president for Academic Affairs at Stony Brook he has made extraordinary contributions to every aspect of the university. His decisive and energetic leadership has been welcome and needed, and Stony Brook University is fortunate to have his steady hand at the helm going forward.”

On May 28, it was announced that Stanley will be leaving SBU and taking on the role of president at Michigan State University.

According to a press release from SBU, Bernstein was appointed provost in October 2016, and he oversaw initiatives aimed at supporting the school’s missions in research, scholarship, art-making and teaching. Before SBU, Bernstein served as the John Christie Barr professor of History and Economics and provost and chief academic officer at Tulane University in New Orleans from 2007 through 2016.

“I am filled with enormous gratitude for the opportunity to serve Stony Brook University in this new role,” Bernstein said in a statement. “Our university is a spectacular place — and it flourishes today due to the impact of an exemplary decade of accomplishment, growth and excellence that is Sam Stanley’s legacy. I eagerly look forward to my ongoing work with faculty, staff and students in pursuit of our shared mission as one of the nation’s premier academic institutions.”

Juvenile clams maturing in Brookhaven’s hatchery. File photo by Alex Petroski

The Town of Huntington and the State Department of Environmental Conservation have separate rules and regulations related to shellfishing, which may confuse some people. Erica Ringewald, a spokesperson for the DEC agreed to answer a few general questions about shellfish harvesting in local bays and harbors. 

Are diesel boats dredging or sail dredging in Huntington Harbor and have they “stolen” millions of dollars’ worth of clams and oysters? Does the state punish this? 

The Town of Huntington has jurisdiction over the method of shellfish harvesting in town waters, which comprise Huntington Bay, Hunting Harbor, Centerport Harbor and Northport Harbor. Shellfish harvesting, regardless of method, is prohibited by DEC in Huntington Harbor, which is closed to the taking of shellfish year-round. 

Has shellfish dredging been identified as a problem?

DEC’s Division of Law Enforcement responds to a few complaints each year, particularly in winter, and often works with the Town of Huntington to investigate depending on the type of complaint made and where the alleged harvesting may be taking place. DEC has not received reports of the illegal harvest of millions of dollars of shellfish at this location.

Fines for violations include: 

First offense for taking shellfish in closed section ranges from $250 to 1,000 (misdemeanor) and value of shellfish illegally taken can be added to the fine. First offense for taking shellfish by mechanical means ranges from $250 to 1,000 (misdemeanor) and the subject could lose the boat and all equipment. In addition, two convictions within a five-year period would result in mandatory license revocation and an administrative suspension of up to 6 months.

Are there different rules and catch limits for commercial vs. recreational shellfish harvesting? 

No permit is required for recreational shellfish harvesting from state lands. Local towns have additional restrictions on catch limits, size limits, season, type of gear and may require residency and additional permits. Recreational harvesters are required to check with the local town they are harvesting from for specific information.

Commercial shellfish harvesters are required to obtain a New York State Shellfish Digger Permit. This permit allows only the permit holder to harvest, cull, sort or tag clams, oysters, mussels and scallops taken from certified or open waters for commercial purposes. An additional Shellfish Digger Vessel Endorsement is required to allow a Shellfish Digger Permit holder to endorse his or her permit to a single vessel which covers all people on board the vessel while harvesting, culling, sorting or tagging hard clams and oysters. For state shellfish harvest limits visit www.dec.ny.gov/outdoor/29870.html.

How long has shellfishing been prohibited in Huntington Harbor?

Huntington Bay is certified (open) for the harvest of shellfish. Approximately 50 percent of Huntington Harbor (southernmost portion) was closed to shellfish harvesting in 1975. The harbor was entirely closed to shellfish harvesting by 1986. For information on shellfish closures in Huntington Harbor, refer to www.dec.ny.gov/outdoor/103483.html#Huntington_Harbor11.

TBR CONTEST HONORS LOCAL FATHERS:

Thanks to all the children who entered Times Beacon Record News Media’s 2019 Father’s Day Contest. Congratulations to Sabine H. of East Setauket and Hannah U. of Stony Brook for being this year’s winners and receiving a family four-pack of movie tickets to the Port Jefferson Cinemas. Special thanks to P.J. Cinemas  for being this year’s sponsor and for their generous donation.

Hannah U., age 5, of Stony Brook with her Super Dad, Joe

‘All About My Super Dad’

By Hannah U.

My dad’s name is Daddy.

His favorite color is indigo.

His favorite food is sushi.

His favorite activity is Codapillar.

He is my hero because he loves me.

My favorite thing to do with him is to go to Fortunato’s Bakery.

 

Sabine H., age 8, of East Setauket with her Super Dad, Reid

‘All About My Super Dad’

By Sabine H.

My dad’s name is Reid but I call him Da.

His favorite color is blue.

His favorite food is pie, ice cream and chicken parm.

His favorite activity is making things with me.

He is my hero because he takes me to carnivals.

My favorite thing to do with him is to play baseball with him!

File photo

Suffolk County Crime Stoppers and 6th Precinct Crime Section officers are seeking the public’s help to identify and locate the man who allegedly stole merchandise from a Selden store on two dates in June.

A man allegedly stole a power bank battery charger from Target, located at 307 Independence Plaza, on June 11 at approximately 9 p.m. The same man returned to the store at approximately 8:15 a.m. on June 16 and allegedly stole a second power bank.

Suffolk County Crime Stoppers offers a cash reward of up to $5,000 for information that leads to an arrest. Anyone with information about these incidents can contact Suffolk County Crime Stoppers to submit an anonymous tip by calling 1-800-220-TIPS, texting “SCPD” and your message to “CRIMES” (274637) or by email at www.tipsubmit.com. All calls, text messages and emails will be kept confidential.

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