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Carrie Meek Gallagher

Local legislators and members of the New York State Center for Clean Water Technology at SBU were on hand for its ribbon cutting celebration July 9. Photo by David Luces

A new research facility at Stony Brook University aims to develop innovative technologies in the fight to improve the quality of water on Long Island and help rid nitrogen in wastewater in an effort to protect drinking water.

The inside of the NYS Center for Clean Water Technology at Stony Brook University Photo by David Luces

On July 9, the New York State Center for Clean Water Technology at SBU officially opened the new research site named the Wastewater Research & Innovation Facility. The WRIF will have nitrogen-removing technologies to clean wastewater. The new facility is situated close to a county wastewater pumping station.

“We all know how important water is to Long Island, we know our only source of drinking water is below our feet,” said Chris Gobler, director, NYS Center for Clean Water Technology. “This facility is designed to bring the next generation of nitrogen reducing and removing biofilters [also called NRBs] that will be smaller and more effective and more widespread.”

The WRIF’s main area is a trailer full of nitrogen-removing biofilters made up of two levels: a layer of sand on top and a layer of wood chips on the bottom. Wastewater flows down, and each layer take out the nitrogen as it goes through.

“Our focus is to take what we have installed in the field, these NRBs and make them smaller and want to make it more affordable,” said Frank Russo, associate director for wastewater initiatives, NYS Center for Clean Water Technology. “The only way we can do that on a scale like this is to do experiments first in a set environment and test all the theories we find in our research.”

There are 22 SBU students and researchers on staff at the new facility. A secondary trailer on the property allows them to conduct experiments and research at a test tube level.

The endgame of those experiments is to eventually install these filters in homes and businesses, so it can help reduce nitrogen pollution.

Russo said it will take a five-year process before they go full scale. He stated that it is a county requirement that before anything is to be installed, you have to show the county that it is a proven technology, and it will last a long time.

The associate director hopes these filters along with a home septic system will one day take the place of a cesspool.

The opening of the new facility, comes a year after the center installed three prototype filters in homes throughout Long Island. The center has also been busy with other projects, including constructing a wetland in Cold Spring Harbor that is designed to treat wastewater and nitrogen levels.

Gobler stressed the need for reducing nitrogen pollution, stating that nearly 75 percent of Suffolk homes are not connected to a sewage system. The problem arises when the nitrogen-contaminated wastewater is stored into cesspools or outdated septic systems.

“The center is going to help address and solve the nitrogen problem on Long Island, but perhaps across the country and maybe even around the world,” said Carrie Meek-Gallagher, regional director of the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation.

In 2017, the county began urging residents to make the switch to new, updated septic systems under the Suffolk County Septic Improvement Program with the help of grants.

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, according to a June 20 TBR News Media article. 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. There is also an additional state grant of up to $10,000, which can mean a total of up to $30,000.

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Outlined in yellow above is land recently acquired by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. Photo from DEC

A local family is doing their part to preserve open spaces.

At a press conference held Nov. 20, it was announced 6.8 acres of private land belonging to Harvey Besunder in the Conscience Bay Watershed area was sold to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation for an undisclosed sum. The acquisition provides a buffer area to filter out contaminants, protects wildlife habitat and increases the region’s resilience to coastal storms. This will provide greater protection to the bay and Long Island Sound, according to DEC Region 1 Director Carrie Meek Gallagher.

The boulder plaque honoring the Besunder family who sold the property to New York State Department of Conservation. Photo from DEC

“These types of acquisitions are a priority for the agency right now where we already have an existing landholding, and we’re adding on to existing holdings that protect watersheds, protect habitat and buffer coastal resiliency,” Gallagher said before the Nov. 20 press conference, where a boulder plaque honoring the family was unveiled.

The property is an addition to the existing 52-acre Conscience Bay-Little Bay State Tidal Wetland, which was purchased from multiple property owners by the DEC in the late 1970s. It doubles the size of the marsh and upland portion of the state property.

Besunder and his wife, Arline, purchased the property located at the intersection of Dyke and North roads in Setauket in 1991 from a family member, according to the husband. He said originally the hope was to build a new house for the family. However, after purchasing, Arline was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis while going to law school, and with so much going on, plans for building never came to fruition. From the beginning, the Besunders’ children, Alison and Eric, recognized the environmental value of the land.

“When I took the kids to see it — they were obviously much younger — and both of them said the same thing, ‘You shouldn’t build on this. It’s too beautiful. Just let it be the way it was,’” Harvey Besunder said. “That’s the way it turned out, and we’re all thrilled that it’s going to be preserved.”

Arline Besunder died eight years ago, and her husband and children decided to sell the property to the state and preserve the land to honor her. Harvey Besunder said the family was thrilled the state was interested, and the process began two years ago when he met with a DEC representative and told her he would rather sell it to the state than to a developer.

Alison Besunder, who now lives in Brooklyn Heights, said she has memories of walking around the property and remembered it being a beautiful and relaxing place to be, epitomizing the area for her.

“It’s very meaningful for me personally that my family could give back to have that land preserved, given it’s so rich in history and environmental-wise as it’s part of the wetlands — a big part of the property is wetlands,” she said.

State Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) praised all involved.

“The goal of protecting the chemistry and ecological integrity of the Setauket Harbor is greatly advanced by this land purchase at the core of this complex estuary,” Englebright said. “Governor Cuomo [D} deserves our appreciation for enabling the DEC to make such wise use of Environmental Protection Fund resources that were placed into the state budget. Additional congratulations and thanks go to the Besunder family and the Stewardship Initiative of the Long Island Sound Study.”

The acquisition of the Besunder property extends the waterfront along Conscience Bay where there is a walking path, freshwater wetlands, red cedar forest, osprey nest and nearly pristine mudflats and shellfish beds, according to Gallagher.