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Citizens Campaign for the Environment

A demonstration is done at King Kullen in Patchogue, showing how to use the drug take-back dropbox added through the Department of Environmental Conservation’s pilot program that started last year. File photo from Adrianne Esposito

By Desirée Keegan

New York is taking another step toward ridding our community and our homes of dangerous drugs.

The state Assembly passed the Drug Take Back Act June 20 following the Senate’s passage of the bill the night before, which will establish a statewide program to provide free, safe pharmaceutical disposal
for unused or expired medications.

Pharmaceutical manufacturers, rather than the taxpayers, will foot the entire bill for implementing the program. Chain pharmacies will be required to provide free drug take-back sites, while other authorized collectors, like independent pharmacies and local lawenforcement, will have the option to participate.

“This landmark law makes New York a national leader in addressing the opioid crisis and protecting our waters from pharmaceutical pollution,” said Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, applauding state Sen. Kemp Hannon (R-Garden City) and Assemblywoman Aileen Gunther (D-Middletown). “[They] have stood up for clean water, public health and New York taxpayers over the special interests of the multibillion-dollar pharmaceutical industry.

This drug take-back legislation is the best in the nation and we believe it will be adopted by other states. The cost to the pharmaceutical industry will be negligible — communities that have passed similar laws estimated a cost of just a couple pennies per prescription.”

This legislation ensures all New Yorkers will have convenient access to safe drug disposal options. Making safe disposal options accessible to the public will reduce what officials described as the harmful
and antiquated practice of flushing unwanted drugs. Drugs that are flushed are polluting waters from the Great Lakes to Long Island Sound, threatening aquatic life, water quality and drinking water.

“A lack of options to safely dispose of unused drugs is contributing to the national drug abuse epidemic that is now the leading cause of injury and death in the U.S., ahead of car accidents,” said Andrew Radin, chair of the New York Product Stewardship Council and recycling director for Onondaga County Resource Recovery Agency. “Deaths from drug overdoses and chronic drug abuse in New York state have increased 71 percent between 2010 and 2015.”

More than 2,000 people in New York die annually from opioid overdose, and 70 percent of people that abuse prescription drugs get them from friends and family, according to the Citizens Campaign for the Environment.

“The Drug Take Back Act will save lives by stopping prescription drug abuse at its source,” Radin said.

A coalition of environmental, public health and product stewardship organizations praised Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) and the state Department of Environmental Conservation for a recently released report, called “The Feasibility of Creating and Implementing a Statewide Pharmaceutical Stewardship Program in New York State,” which called for the disposal program to be funded by the pharmaceutical industry. Cuomo asked for the report when he vetoed what he called a poorly crafted disposal bill that passed the legislature last year.

“Safe drug disposal options will help save lives by getting leftover prescription drugs out of household medicine cabinets, where they are often stockpiled and abused,” Esposito said. “We now look forward to seeing the governor sign this critical bill into law.”

Citizen's Campaign for the Environment Executive Director Adrienne Esposito, on left, shows the decrease in single-use plastic bags (in blue) from a survey done in December 2017 to one done in April 2018. Photo by Kyle Barr

Though there are still people in Suffolk County who regularly kick themselves for forgetting to bring their reusable bags into stores, a newly-released survey says the law that enforces a five-cent per bag fee has so far been effective.

Legislature to vote on statewide ban of plastic bags

By Desirée Keegan

At the state level, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) announced a bill to ban single-use plastic bags across the state April 23, which would begin in January 2019 if passed. The three-page bill, introduced by the governor a day after Earth Day, comes a little more than a year after he blocked a 5-cent surcharge that New York City had sought to place on plastic bags.

Cuomo described the measure as an effort to counteract the “blight of plastic bags” that is taking “a devastating toll on our streets, our water and our natural resources,” he said in a statement.

Seeking re-election for a third term in the fall, Cuomo then quoted an adage: “We did not inherit the Earth, we are merely borrowing it from our children.”

If the bill were to pass, New York would join California, which approved a statewide ban of plastic bags in 2016. Hawaii has a de facto ban on plastic bags; all of its counties have instituted bans.

But the measure faces an uncertain path in the Legislature, where leaders of the Assembly and the Senate had opposed the city’s bill. The measure would very likely face a stiffer challenge in the Republican-majority Senate.

Under Cuomo’s proposal, a variety of bags would be exempt from the ban, including those that contain raw meat, fish or poultry; bags sold in bulk; those used in bulk packages of fruit and dried goods; those used for deli products; newspaper bags; trash, food storage and garment bags; and takeout food bags. The state’s Department of Environmental Conservation would also be allowed to exempt certain bags through regulations.

The news comes after advocates from across the state gathered the same day in Albany to hold Cuomo accountable for meeting his climate and clean energy commitments.

“Today, New Yorkers delivered a message to Governor Cuomo: Walk the talk on climate action; follow through on your words, because lasting change only happens through action and putting goals into law,” said Peter Iwanowicz, executive director of Environmental Advocates of New York. “New York has a remarkable opportunity to be an international leader on climate if, and only if, we embrace a future powered by renewables. The people of the state will continue to remind Governor Cuomo of this opportunity until he takes advantage of it.”

“And this is only in three months since the law passed,” Executive Director of Citizen’s Campaign for the Environment Adrienne Esposito said to the Suffolk County Legislature’s Health Committee April 19. “This is a great success. Public behavior is changing.”

In November and December of last year, her environmental advocacy group conducted a study that showed 70 percent  of 20,000 Suffolk County shoppers surveyed left a store with a plastic, non-reusable bag in tow. Only 6 percent of customers surveyed used a reusable bag.

After a new survey of 6,000 people this month in 20 grocery stores throughout the county, just 30 percent of those surveyed bought plastic bags and 43 percent were now carrying reusable. Twenty-one percent of people shopping in those grocery stores decided not to take a bag.

“As we celebrate Earth Day it’s great to have news that the bag fee is effective, said Legislator William “Doc” Spencer (D-Centerport). “I know that there were concerns with adopting the bag law, but to see real, tangible results in such a short period of time, I think it’s very exciting.”

Ocean plastics have become a real concern to a number of environmental scientists and advocacy groups, and Esposito said the next goal is to see if there’s a way to reduce the use of other sources of plastic, like straws and utensil.

“Plastic is becoming a real threat to the environment,” she said.

Dr. Rebecca Grella, a Brentwood schools research scientist and teacher, surveyed Flax Pond Marine Laboratory in Old Field in October 2017 and said the amount of plastics found in the water was extremely troubling.

“What we found at the Flax Pond in one square meter [was] 17 grams of microplastics, which are plastics under 5 millimeters [large],” Grella said. “In the entire shoreline of Flax Pond — over a mile of shoreline — we extrapolated there is about 400 pounds of plastic.”

The microplastics are from larger pieces that have eroded along the sea floor until they are smaller in size. They are often ingested by sea life, which not only endangers aquatic creatures but any creature who eat them, including people.

Spencer said that while a total ban on bags would have been more efficient, there was no way to get it passed by the Legislature.

“I think in order to get to this point after years of negotiation, the nickel offered a successful compromise,” Spencer said. “I think the law has worked so well because people don’t want their nickels going to the store.”

“By charging people 5 cents there seems to be a lot of people getting angry and agitated,” Grella said. “In all actuality, it isn’t as easy to put a 5-cent fee on paper or plastic.”

Despite the success, Esposito admitted there is a chance to eventually see an increase in purchased bag use as more people get used to the law.

“We do get concerned about people getting used to the nickel and just paying it,” she said. “So that’s why we need to keep up public education.”

Citizen’s Campaign for the Environment is planning to conduct another survey in November and December to gather a much larger sample size, and survey more than just grocery stores.

New law closes loophole to permanently ban replacement of old, primitive cesspool technology to reduce nitrogen levels in water

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, center, displays the new county law banning the updating or instillation of primitive cesspools and the technology associated with them, as he’s surrounded by local leaders and environmental group organizers during a press conference. Photo from Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone’s office

Repairing old cesspools is now a thing of the past in Suffolk County.

As part of an ongoing effort to improve water quality on Long Island, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) signed into law a ban on installing new cesspools, ending the practice of grandfathering inadequate
sanitary system fixes with the now-primitive technology.

“It marks another historic step forward in our ongoing effort to reverse decades of nitrogen pollution that has degraded water quality in our lakes, bays and harbors, and it is a step that is long overdue,” Bellone said. “It is fairly unusual for the local governments, environmental groups and the region’s largest builders group to agree on the importance of tightening up outdated regulations to protect water quality, but that is exactly what happened in this instance. This inclusive, collaborative approach is making a huge difference in our efforts to reduce decades of nitrogen pollution.”

Cesspools have been identified as primary sources of nitrogen pollution that have degraded water quality throughout Suffolk County, contributing to harmful algae blooms, beach closures and fish kills. The use of cesspools in new construction has been banned in the county since 1973, when a requirement for the addition of a septic tank was added, but the county sanitary code did not require that homeowners add a septic tank when replacing an existing cesspool, making it legal to install a new cesspool to replace an existing one. By now closing this loophole, it will advance the water quality efforts undertaken by the county and set the stage for the evolution away from the use of nonperforming cesspools and septic systems to the use of new, state-of-the-art technologies that reduce nitrogen in residential wastewater by up to 70 percent, according to Bellone.

“With this action, I would like to say that we, as a county, have adopted the policies necessary to adequately address our region’s nitrogen pollution problems, but in reality, this gets us closer to where we should have been in the decades following 1973,” said county Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket), a co-sponsor of the Article 6 revisions and chairwoman of the Suffolk County Legislature’s Environment, Planning and Agriculture Committee. “I look forward to continuing the process of finally bringing Suffolk County’s sanitary code into the 21st century.”

In addition to banning the installation of new cesspools, the law approved by the Suffolk County Legislature Dec. 5 requires the wastewater industry to provide data regarding system replacement and pumping activities to the Department of Health Services beginning July 1, 2018. It also mandates permits for replacement of existing systems effective July 1, 2019, and requires business properties with grandfathered nonconforming wastewater flows to install nitrogen-reducing advanced systems if making significant changes to the use of the property.

Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, joined forces with other environmental group leaders in thanking the county for what was a necessary step in eliminating nitrogen from groundwater.

“We can no longer allow inadequately treated sewage to mix with our sole source of drinking water,” she said. “Modernizing our health codes is a commonsense action that is critically needed for water protection.”

Richard Amper, executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, said he was overjoyed by the “huge step,” ending pollution by what he called Suffolk’s No. 1 threat to clean water.

“Now, we’re not just complaining,” he said. “We’re doing something about it.”

For the past three years, Suffolk’s Legislature has instituted a pilot program to test the new technologies, using a lottery system to select homeowners willing to have a donated system installed to demonstrate system performance. Under the pilot program, a total of 14 different technologies have been installed at 39 homes throughout the county. Four have been provisionally approved for use after demonstrating six months of acceptable operating data. As part of continued efforts, a voluntary Septic Improvement Program, the first of its kind in the state, was launched in July 2017 to provide grants and low-interest financing to make the replacement of cesspools and septic systems with new innovative/alternative technologies affordable for homeowners who choose to upgrade their systems. Over the first five months, nearly 850 homeowners have registered for the program, 228 have completed applications and 160 have been awarded grants and are moving toward installation of the new systems.

Suffolk County was the first in the state to apply for funding from New York State’s newly created $75 million Septic System Replacement Fund and will use the funding to expand its efforts to see the new technologies installed throughout the county.

The changes are the first in what is expected to be a series of updates to the county sanitary code over the next several years as county officials consider whether to put in place policies that require new nitrogen-
reducing systems in new construction projects, require installation of the new systems when a cesspool or septic system fails and needs to be replaced, or upon sale of a property. For now, all parties involved are on the same page moving forward, including both a working group comprised of county legislators, town planners and engineers with members of environmental organizations, as well as the Long Island Builders Institute.

“There is more work to do,” said Kevin McDonald, conservation finance and policy director for The Nature Conservancy on Long Island. “But passage of this bill means less nitrogen pollution in our water, and more resilient, healthy bays and people for generations to come.”

Rare species that live in the Shoreham woods could be without a home if the land is cleared for a solar farm. File photo by Kevin Redding

Not seeing the forest for the trees is one thing, but a recent decision by Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) to not preserve the forest or trees for the sake of solar installation is causing a major stir among Suffolk County elected officials.

On Dec. 18, Cuomo vetoed a bill co-sponsored by state Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) and state Sen. Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) that called for the expansion of Long Island’s publicly protected Central Pine Barrens to include more than 1,000 acres in Shoreham and Mastic Woods — “museum quality” stretches of open space that should never be developed by private owners, according to the sponsors. Their legislation aimed to pull the plug on solar plans for the sites.

“The idea of putting solar on these properties is foolish,” Englebright said. “And I hold my solar credentials next to anyone. I am the legislator that sponsored and spearheaded solar more than 20 years ago — these are not good sites for solar.”

A solar farm is still being proposed near the Shoreham nuclear power plant. Currently, there are plans near the Pine Barrens in Mastic for a solar installation. Photo by Kevin Redding

A large chunk of the Shoreham property — made up of approximately 820 acres of undeveloped vegetable land, coastal forest, rolling hills, cliffs and various species of wildlife on the shoreline of Long Island Sound — was almost demolished last year under a proposal by the site’s owners, National Grid, and private developers to knock down trees, level ridges and scarify the property to build a solar farm in the footprint. This “replace green with green” plan garnered much community opposition and was ultimately scrapped by Long Island Power Authority, leading civic association and environmental group members to join Englebright in proposing to preserve the parcel by turning it into a state park. The assemblyman also pledged that while there is a great need to install solar panels as a renewable energy source, there are ways to do so without tampering with primeval forest.

In Cuomo’s veto of the proposed bipartisan legislation to preserve these properties, which had been worked on over the past year and passed overwhelmingly through the two houses of the Legislature in June, he said that it “unnecessarily pits land preservation against renewable energy.” The governor voiced his support of developing solar energy projects on the sites and said the legislation as written prevented environmental growth.

“I am committed to making New York State a national leader in clean energy,” Cuomo said in his veto message. “New York’s Clean Energy Standard mandates 50 percent of electricity to come from renewable energy sources like wind and solar by 2030, to be aggressively phased in over the next several years. … Siting renewable energy projects can be challenging. But it would set a poor precedent to invoke laws meant for the preservation of environmentally sensitive land in order to block projects that should be addressed by local communities or through established state siting or environmental review processes. To sign the bill as drafted would be a step in the wrong direction by moving away from a clean energy future instead of leaning into it.”

Among some of the veto’s supporters were the League of Conservation Voters and Citizens Campaign for the Environment. Jerry Rosengarten, the Mastic site’s owner and managing member of the Middle Island Solar Farm, a proposed 67,000-panel green energy development on a 100-acre parcel in Mastic which would cut down woods near the headwaters of the Forge River, voiced his support of Cuomo’s decision in a statement.

“The idea of putting solar on these properties is foolish. And I hold my solar credentials next to anyone.”

— Steve Englebright

“Gov. Cuomo’s bold leadership today is hope that we will be able to effectively fight Trump-era climate denial and the ‘not in my backyard’ shortsightedness that would otherwise prevent crucial environmental progress at the most critical time,” said Rosengarten, an environmentalist who has been working for six years to place a solar farm on the site, making numerous applications to Long Island Power Authority to obtain power purchase agreements. “We look forward to working with the Town of Brookhaven on the next steps toward realizing a solar farm that we can take great pride in together.”

Englebright took issue with the not-in-my-backyard claims, which were also made by the League of Conservation Voters.

“I find that most unfortunate because it’s a falsehood,” he said. “I don’t represent Shoreham. I live in Setauket, and these sites are nowhere near my district. But, on merit, the properties deserve preservation. To have my sponsorship characterized as NIMBY is not only inaccurate, it’s insulting.”

Those who are against the veto have been championing preservation on both sites, including Dick Amper, executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, and Andrea Spilka, president of Southampton Town Civic Coalition.

“The land is so valuable, environmentally, that it should be preserved,” Amper said of the Shoreham site in the spring when the legislation was first being pushed.

He added that solar is an important renewable energy in combating global warming, but that panels should be installed on roofs and parking lots rather than ecosystems.

“The reality is that once taken, these forest lands will never be recovered,” LaValle said in a statement outlining his disappointment over the veto. “These lands are particularly critical for the ecology of the Forge River. Destroying the forest and the trees to install solar power just does not make sense at either the Mastic Woods or Shoreham Old Growth Coastal Forest properties. … Currently, over 30 percent of New York state’s solar power is generated on Long Island, the majority of which is produced in my senate district. We can continue to expand the green energies where they will benefit Long Island without damaging the environment as we proceed. Destroying the environment is never the direction I wish to take.”

State Assemblyman Steve Englebright is putting pressure on manufacturers to keep harmful chemicals out of child products sold in New York. File photo

Brookhaven Supervisor Ed Romaine (R), a career advocate for the environment who worked tooth and nail alongside Englebright and LaValle to preserve these sites, said vetoing the bill “was the wrong thing to do.”

“[It’s] the reason why Brookhaven Town adopted a solar code that allows for both the preservation of our open space and the development of solar energy,” Romaine said. “Brookhaven Town was committed to preserving these lands, and worked right up to the hours before this veto was issued to provide the developer with up to 60 acres of alternative, town-owned sites that did not require the removal of a single tree.”

Some of these alternative solar sites, Englebright later explained, were the paved parking lot of the State Office Building in Hauppauge and the nearby H. Lee Dennison Building, each of the Brookhaven Highway Department yards and the roofs of numerous local schools. Englebright successfully pushed for solar panels to be placed on the roof of Comsewogue’s elementary school.

“Regrettably, the developer did not respond to these offers, and the governor did not take these alternative sites into account when issuing the veto.” Romaine said. “I thank the sponsors, Sen. Ken LaValle, Assemblyman Steve Englebright and their colleagues for their hard work to preserve these ecologically important woodlands, and urge them to re-submit legislation for this in the coming session of the state Legislature.”

Englebright said he plans to reintroduce the legislation in the coming weeks.

“We are going to revisit this, and I hope that the governor keeps an open mind going forward,” he said. “It just requires a little bit of thought to realize that we have a vast amount of the Island where you can place solar panels without cutting down forest. By contrast, there are very few opportunities for preservation on the scale of these two properties. This is a source of some frustration.”

File photo by Victoria Espinoza.

The plan to reduce the use of plastic bags in Suffolk County has been modified with a 5-cent tax on plastic bags, replacing an original proposal for an all out ban.

County Legislator William “Doc” Spencer (C-Centerport) updated a bill he submitted in March to reduce the use of plastic bags in retail sales after he saw how other areas found success with a small tax.

“My focus all along has been to improve the environment and reduce waste,” —William Spencer 

“My focus all along has been to improve the environment and reduce waste,” Spencer said in an email. “The decision to change course involved multiple factors, most importantly evidence from various municipalities with similar legislation that has proven to be effective.”

The new version would charge 5 cents per bag used by any customer, and all fees collected would be retained by the store. There would be no fee for customers who bring in their own bags, and a store cannot discourage them from doing so, the proposed law states.

A spokeswoman from Spencer’s office said the legislator looked to Washington D.C. as an example of a successful implementation of a 5-cent fee.

The Anacostia River Clean Up and Protection Act went into effect in January 2010, and it requires all businesses that sell food or alcohol to charge a nickel for each disposable paper or plastic carryout bag. The bill was the first of its kind in the United States, and in a 2013 study of the law, researchers found that both residents and businesses reported a significant reduction in disposable bag use and a majority of residents and businesses supported the bag fee. In addition, both residents and businesses said they saw fewer plastic bags littering the area.

The study found that residents estimated a 60 percent decrease in household bag use, moving from 10 disposable bags per week before the law to four bags per week in 2013. Seventy-nine percent of residents reported carrying reusable bags when shopping and 74 percent of businesses saw an increase in customers bringing their own bags. And, perhaps most important for residents who are still wary of the tax, the study reported 8 percent of businesses and 16 percent of residents felt bothered by the law.

Spencer said this law is an important step in protecting the environment.

Suffolk County Legislator William "Doc" Spencer file photo
Suffolk County Legislator William “Doc” Spencer file photo

“This is an opportunity to secure a win for the environment because it will form a consensus of necessary support among the legislature and key stakeholders,” he said.

The Citizens Campaign for the Environment said there is more plastic in the oceans than plankton, with 46,000 pieces of plastic in every square mile. Many marine animals are choked and strangled by these bags, or die consuming them. The CCE said plastic pollution negatively impacts 267 species of marine life.

Spencer said he intends to keep a close look on the progression of the bill, and that if a tax doesn’t reduce the use of plastic bags enough, he will reconsider an outright ban.

“We are moving in a positive direction, and I intend to look closely at bag usage, before and after implementation, to ensure it’s effective,” he said. “If it is not having a significant impact, I have every intention of working to strengthen the policy including revisiting the ban.”

Environmental advocates call for the banning of microbeads in order to protect waterways like the Long Island Sound. from left, Adrienne Esposito of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, Dr. Larry Swanson of Stony Brook University, Dr. Artie Kopelman of Coastal Research Education Society Long Island, George Hoffman of Setauket Harbor Protection Committee, Rob Weltner of Operation SPLASH, Matt Grove of Surfrider, Enrico Nardone of Seatuck Environmental, and Katie Muether of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society. Photo from Maureen Murphy

When it comes to water pollution, size does not matter.

That’s why a group of environmental advocates gathered along the shoreline of the Long Island Sound in Stony Brook last week to call for state legislation that would ban the tiny but potentially harmful microbeads in personal care products.

The rally was organized to coincide with June 8’s World Oceans Day and zeroed in on the Microbead-Free Waters Act, which would ban personal care products made with the tiny plastic pellets called microbeads, which advocates said are hurting waterways and wildlife because New York’s wastewater treatment plants are not equipped to filter them prior to the water’s release into the environment.

The legislation passed the Assembly in April but has remained idle in the Senate.

The bill is sponsored in the Senate by Republican Environmental Conservation Committee Chair Tom O’Mara (R-Big Flats), with 37 cosponsors — a total that surpasses the 32 votes it needs to pass.

William Cooke, director of government relations for the Citizens Campaign for the Environment, helped orchestrate the rally and called on Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport) to use his new role as majority leader to help ensure a microbead ban passes before legislative session ends June 17.

“While microbeads are small, the problem they are creating is very large,” Cooke said. “The solution is unbelievably simple and absolutely free. The answer is to take them out of our products now. This legislation currently has more support than is needed to pass. The only question is will the new Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan allow it to move forward.”

The New York State Attorney General reported that 19 tons of plastic microbeads enter the wastewater stream in New York annually, and the tiny beads are passing through treatment plants on Long Island and throughout the state. Plastic microbeads in state waters accumulate toxins, are consumed by fish, and can work their way up the food chain, putting public health at risk.

“The Microbead-Free Waters Act has a clear pathway to passage. If it’s not brought up for a vote, it’s a clear sign that industry has once again silenced the majority of New York’s state senators,” said Saima Anjam, environmental health director at Environmental Advocates of New York, who was at the rally. “New Yorkers expect more from new leadership. … Senators Flanagan and O’Mara need to allow a simple up or down vote on bills supported by a majority of members.”

Flanagan’s office declined to comment on the matter.

Late last year, Suffolk County committed to studying the health and economic impacts of banning microbeads on the county level to the praise of county Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket), who argued that Suffolk needed to follow the likes of municipalities like Illinois, which was the first state to outright ban the sale of cosmetics containing plastic microbeads.

“On a macro level, there is no doubt that microbeads are finding their way into our nation’s rivers, lakes and oceans,” said Hahn, chairwoman of the Legislature’s Environment, Planning and Agriculture Committee. “What we need to know is to what extent, locally, these additives [impact] our environment and, if corrective action is needed, what ramifications would be expected.”

Suffolk officials discuss environmental issues facing Long Island after thousands of dead fish washed ashore in Riverhead. Photo by Alex Petroski

The estimated nearly 100,000 dead bunker fish that have washed ashore in Riverhead may seem astounding, but it wasn’t all that surprising to the panel of experts brought before the Suffolk County Health Committee on Thursday.

In late May, the thousands of dead bunker fish, formally known as Atlantic menhaden fish, began appearing in the Peconic Estuary, an area situated between the North and South Forks of Long Island. According to a June 2 press release from the Peconic Estuary Program, the bunker fish died as a result of low dissolved oxygen in the water. This shortage of oxygen is called hypoxia.

Walter Dawydiak, director of the county’s environmental quality division, who serves on the panel, which was organized by the health committee chairman, Legislator William “Doc” Spencer (D-Centerport), testified that the number of dead fish was at or approaching 100,000.

“This one is bigger and worse than any,” Dawydiak said.

According to the PEP, which is part of the National Estuary Program and seeks to conserve the estuary, bunker are filter-feeding fish and an important food source for many predatory fish, including striped bass and blue fish.

Alison Branco, the program’s director, said the fish are likely being chased into shallow waters by predators, but are dying because of low dissolved oxygen levels in the waters. In addition, an algae bloom is contributing to the low levels and is fueled by excess nitrogen loading. Much of that nitrogen comes from septic systems, sewage treatment plants and fertilizer use.

“We’ve reach a point where this kind of hypoxia was run of the mill. We expect it every summer,” Branco, who also served as a panelist, said following the hearing.

While magnitude of the fish kill was astounding, the experts said they weren’t so surprised that it happened.

“I definitely thought it could happen at any time,” Christopher Gobler, a biologist at Stony Brook University, said in a one-on-one interview after the panel hearing. “There’s been an oxygen problem there all along.”

Gobler called it largest fish kill he’d seen in 20 years.

According to panel members, the worst of the fish kill occurred between May 27 and May 30.

Branco did suggest that this shocking environmental event could be turned into a positive if the right measures are taken sooner rather than later.

“It’s always shocking to see a fish kill,” she said. “As much as we don’t want to have things like that happen I think the silver lining is that it did capture the public’s attention.”

Prevention of a fish kill this large is possible, according to Branco. While preventing the harmful algal blooms is not possible, reducing the frequency and severity can be done if the amount of nitrogen in the coastal water supply is controlled.

Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, an environmental policy advocacy group, agreed that curtailing the amount of nitrogen in the water is the easiest and most impactful way for prevention of a fish kill of this magnitude.

“The journey of a thousand miles starts with the first step,” Esposito said in response to a question about the daunting task of fixing the Island’s sewage treatment techniques and facilities on a limited budget.

Esposito described the roughly $5 million from New York State, which was allotted to Suffolk County to deal with cleaning the coastal water supply, as seed money. Esposito and Branco both said they believe the commitment of time and money required to solve the nitrogen problem in the water supply will be vast.

“We can do this,” she said. “We have to do it. We have no choice.”

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