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Clean Water

Cedar Beach waters in Mount Sinai run into the Long Island Sound. File photo by Elana Glowatz

With mounting pressure to preserve the sanctity of Long Island’s coastal waters, Suffolk County is teaming up with specialists at Stony Brook University to educate the public on marine pollution.

“Folks on Long Island are more involved with [marine pollution] than other parts of the country because they are spending time around the sound and beaches,” said Katherine Aubrecht, the faculty director for coastal environmental studies at Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences. “It’s such a bigger part of people’s lives, and there is a more receptive audience here to be thinking about this.”

The county Legislature unanimously passed a resolution June 5 to direct the Division of Planning & Environment in the Department of Economic Development and Planning to collaborate with SoMAS to establish a marine debris pollution awareness program.

“It is important to teach young children about the impact they are having on their community and how they can become environmentally conscientious.”

— Kathleen Fallon

Though it is just in its preliminary stages, according to Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) who sponsored the resolution, the awareness program would be used to educate school-aged children and the general public on the dangers of garbage pollution to the marine ecosystem.

“We want the education to be generalized, so that we can have flexibility in who we speak to and about what,” Anker said.

Anker said the two goals for the upcoming program are to educate the public on how we are affecting and degrading our oceans, and to teach people what they could do about it, including the need for beach cleanups and how to properly recycle plastics.

Aubrecht said that there are three unpaid interns from the Stony Brook University’s environmental humanities program charged with compiling data on ocean pollution, and looking into what other marine debris  education efforts exist on Long Island. Data is also being collected on demographics the program wishes to target with the campaign.

Kathleen Fallon, the coastal processes and hazards specialist for New York Sea Grant, said educating young people is of the utmost significance.

“It is important to teach young children about the impact they are having on their community and how they can become environmentally conscientious,” she said. “Some examples could include teaching students about the impact they might have, even just picking up a few pieces of trash or about how all pollutants eventually make their way into marine environments.”

“Some examples could include teaching students about the impact they might have, even just picking up a few pieces of trash or about how all pollutants eventually make their way into marine environments.”

— Kathleen Fallon

Anker said she expects the program to have a full formal presentation ready by the end of next year. She also expects by next Earth Day, the debris awareness program will have presentations to show what citizens can do to help clean up the local marine environment.  

Microplastics ending up in local waters are among the most pressing issues on Long Island. Microplastics are plastics that have broken down due to erosion into pieces smaller than 5 millimeters — they end up being swallowed by sea life endangering the health of the animal and, if the issue is untreated, those plastics can easily end up on the dinner table.

At the county Legislature’s April 19 Health Committee meeting Rebecca Grella, a Brentwood High School research scientist and teacher, said she had surveyed Flax Pond Marine Laboratory in Old Field in October 2017 and that in 1 square meter of shoreline, found 17 grams of microplastics. She said there were approximately 400 pounds of plastic in 1 mile of shoreline in the pond.

Aubrecht said that when these plastics enter a marine environment they can also cause organic pollutants — which are often too dispersed and not dangerous — to merge onto these plastics, but have a larger effect on marine wildlife. Ocean debris also cause animal entanglement, like a small fish or turtle getting caught in a plastic ring that holds a six-pack of cans. These entangled creatures often suffer major injuries or die if they can’t free themselves.

Though all these problems may seem daunting, Fallon said that education is the starting line in a race that will hopefully end with the elimination of marine pollutants and debris.

“A community that is made aware of the impact that they are having on their environment will hopefully be more likely to avoid harmful actions,” Fallon said.

The town is taking steps to reduce the amount of nitrogen in its groundwater. File photo

The quality of the water on Long Island is worsening, and the Town of Brookhaven took an important step to reverse that trend.

The town board voted unanimously to approve a local law proposed by Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) that establishes nitrogen protection zones within 500 feet of any body of water on or around Long Island. The zones will prohibit new structures or dwellings being built in that range from installing cesspools or septic systems, effective in January 2017.

“We’ve all watched our waters degrade over the last 50 years,” Romaine said after the vote at a town board meeting held on June 9. “We all know part of the problem is nitrogen.”

Romaine has long been an advocate for improving the island’s water quality on the town and county levels. He addressed the problem at his State of the Town address in March.

“Nitrogen from our sanitary systems, our lawns, our golf courses and our farms is impacting our bays and harbors, our freshwater lakes and streams and our drinking water,” he said. “The solutions to this problem are neither easy nor cheap. But doing nothing is not an option; we must act now. Our future depends on us addressing this problem.”

Representatives from three nonprofit organizations focusing on water quality spoke in support of the law last Thursday.

“I’d like to congratulate you guys and commend you again on your environmental leadership,” George Hoffman of the Setauket Harbor Task Force said. “It’s timely. It’s needed and I’m glad that you’re moving forward with it because there just seems to be a lot of stuff going on with harbors and waters and nitrogen but nothing seems to be getting done. So this is a good thing to see that you’re actually seeing it through and that there will be an ordinance here that will start to change what’s going on in our waters.”

Kevin McAllister of Defend H2O and Doug Swesty of the Sea Run Brook Trout Coalition also spoke in strong support of the law.

“It’s critical that you do this because of the glaciated terrain in which we live on here in Long Island, that 500 feet represents approximately two years of travel time from the time something enters a cesspool or septic tank within a 500-foot radius until it reaches the water body,” Swesty said. “Groundwater travel times here are about two to three feet a day. So it’s critical that we implement something to protect our waterways from discharges that are put into the groundwater.”

According to the town’s website, there has been a 93 percent decline in Great South Bay clam harvests as a result of brown tides, which are brought about by nitrogen seepage. The island’s bay scallop industry has collapsed almost entirely due to nitrogen-caused algal blooms. These issues are in addition to the overall decreasing quality of Long Island’s water.

The law will have an added provision protecting homeowners who incur damage thanks to a disaster like Hurricane Sandy, allowing them other options should requiring the purchase of a new system be a source of financial hardship.

Third District Councilman Kevin LaValle (R-Selden), who is in favor of that protection, supports the law as a whole.

“I think it’s a great goal we’ve set for the town and for other towns as well,” he said.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone pitches the proposal. Photo from Steve Bellone

Suffolk County is delaying a bold proposal that would have charged residents a minimal fee to enhance water quality protection efforts.

In April, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) staged a press conference in the company of environmentalists and lawmakers to announce his plan to address nitrogen pollution in drinking and surface water across the region by charging an additional $1 per 1,000 gallons of water. It needed the state legislature’s blessing in order to go before Suffolk County residents in a referendum vote in November, and this month, Deputy County Executive Jon Schneider said in reports that the county would be holding off on the plan to allow more time before putting it on the ballot.

The proposal would have kicked in in 2018 and established what Bellone called a “water quality protection fee,” which would fund the conversion of homes from outdated septic systems to active treatment systems, the county executive said. He estimated the $1 surcharge would have generated roughly $75 million in revenue each year to be solely dedicated to reducing nitrogen pollution — and still keep Suffolk County’s water rates nearly 40 percent lower than the national average.

Peter Scully, deputy county executive and head of the water quality initiative, said in an interview that some state lawmakers showed no interest in advancing the proposal, forcing the county’s hand before putting it to a referendum.

He said that Bellone preferred this kind of surcharge be decided by residents via referendum.

“We received kind of a sobering indication from the state Senate that there was not enough support for the proposal to let the people of Suffolk County vote,” he said. “We decided that this appears to be more of a timing issue.”

Richard Amper, executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, endorsed the initial county proposal but said he was “mad as hell” over the decision to halt the plan for another year. In an interview with TBR News Media, Amper said the administration was handcuffed by state lawmakers who did not want to see Bellone’s plan come to fruition.

“If I had children, and they pulled something like this, I’d send them to their room,” Amper said. “The Bellone administration felt the Senate had made this decision for them. It was killed — not withdrawn.”

Amper said state Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport) expressed little interest in allowing Bellone’s proposal to come to a vote this November and accused him of playing political games with the environment.

“This is something they can’t not do something about,” Amper said. “It’s the biggest environmental and economic crisis this island ever faced.”

A spokesman for Flanagan issued the following statement: “Our office has always considered the merits of any legislative proposal advanced by Suffolk County’s elected officials, and we will continue to do so in the future.”

State Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) — a known environmental activist — said the measure would have done wonders for the state’s water supply.

“We’re really looking at an opportunity to correct some deficiencies that could, if left uncorrected, unhinge our economy, which is based upon people bathing and recreating in our coastal waters, fishing and otherwise enjoying our waters,” he said when it was announced. “For the first time, we are pulling a program together that integrates both our fresh water and saltwater in one protection initiative, and that is very significant.”

Some lawmakers, including county legislators Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga) and Leslie Kennedy (R-Nesconset) staged a press conference following Bellone’s proposal to express opposition, calling it unwelcomed taxation.

George Hoffman, of the Setauket Harbor Task Force, also stood behind Bellone’s proposal when it was announced and said it would benefit Suffolk County for decades to come. He said it was “one of the most far-reaching and important public policy issues in decades,” and said it was important to proceed slowly and “get it right” moving forward.

“I worked with the supervisor of Brookhaven in 2003 when the town put forward a $100 million dollar open space fund referendum that received over 70 percent voter approval — but we spent many months going out to the various communities and explaining why it was needed,” he said. “You can’t cut corners on big policy issues and when you need the voters to approve new funding sources like the proposed water surcharge.”

Roughly 90 percent of the population in Nassau County operates under an active wastewater treatment system through connections to sewage plants. But in Suffolk County, there are more than 360,000 individual cesspools and septic systems — representing more unsewered homes than in the entire state of New Jersey — that are more likely to release nitrogen into the ground and surface water.

Scully said the county would be workshopping the proposal with civics and business and other stakeholders across Suffolk in order to perfect the proposition before putting it to a vote.

“If there are folks who are opposed to our proposal and don’t have one of their own, that means they’re not concerned about solving the problem,” he said. “We’re hoping we can get productive discussions.”

Suffolk County Legislator Kevin McCaffrey, speaking, leads a press conference opposing County Executive Bellone’s water plan last Wednesday. Photo from Kevin McCaffrey

Suffolk Republicans said the county executive’s water quality plan stinks.

County Executive Steve Bellone (D) unrolled a proposal last week that would allow voters to decide whether or not they would pay an extra $1 per 1,000 gallons of water to address nitrogen pollution in drinking and surface water across the region. And while some environmentalists heralded the plan, Suffolk Republicans said it would be unfair to the taxpayer and cost more than what Bellone might lead residents to believe.

Suffolk County Legislator Kevin McCaffrey (R-Lindenhurst) joined with other members of the Republican Caucus last Wednesday at the county headquarters in Hauppauge to speak against Bellone’s proposal. Standing with him was Legislator Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga), who accused Bellone of using the water rate increase as a source of revenue to help balance the county’s $1.2 billion debt.

“This is yet another attempt by Steve Bellone to get into the pockets of taxpayers,” Trotta said. “It is a ploy to use water protection as a means of covering for his mismanagement of county finances.”      

His proposal would establish a water quality protection fee that would fund the conversion of homes from outdated septic systems to active treatment systems, the county executive said. He estimated the $1 surcharge would generate roughly $75 million in revenue each year to be solely dedicated to reducing nitrogen pollution — and still keep Suffolk County’s water rates nearly 40 percent lower than the national average.

The funds collected would be used in conjunction with other funding, such as from Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s (D) $383 million initiative to support clean water infrastructure.

Residents living in countless communities like Kings Park, which Trotta represents, have been on the county’s radar as locations in desperate need of a septic makeover. And while the county Republicans said they agreed that clean water must remain an important talking point in Suffolk, they argued that charging more for water might burden those residents already paying more for sewer upgrades.

“Residents in my district and districts around Suffolk County have been paying for a sewer district for over 30 years,” McCaffrey said. “The ‘Bellone Water Tax’ would make these residents pay for the same thing twice.”

Suffolk Legislator Leslie Kennedy (R-Nesconset) said residents would not enjoy equal benefits from the proposal and, therefore, she was against it outright.

“At this point I see this as nothing more than a tax increase on water usage for all,” Kennedy said. “Some may never see the benefit of sewers or nitrogen reduction cesspools in their lifetime.”

The Republican Caucus is committed to fighting what they said was an unfair and unjust tax on Suffolk County residents and called on community leaders, elected officials and taxpayers to stand up for residents in Suffolk County and put an end to the Bellone Water Tax proposal.

But not everyone stood opposed to the water quality initiative. In an interview, George Hoffman of the Setauket Harbor Task Force said Bellone’s plan would benefit Suffolk County for decades to come. Working so closely with some of the county’s most coveted bodies of water, Hoffman said the county needed to act, and fast.

“It’s pretty clear that our harbors and bays are struggling. Until that’s addressed, there’s going to be nothing we can do as a harbor group to be better,” he said. “We can prevent runoffs, but we can’t prevent the seepage from the homes along the shore. What we like about the initiative is it puts water quality at the top of the agenda.”

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Discharging homes’ wastewater into sewer systems could keep harmful substances out of our water supply. File photo

Our water supply is pooped.

Hundreds of thousands of homes in Suffolk County run on their own septic systems or cesspools, which leak nitrogen from waste into the soil and, thus, into our groundwater and other water sources. Elevated nitrogen levels are dangerous because they mess with our ecosystem — one effect is promoting algae growth, which decreases the water’s oxygen supply that fish and other creatures need to live and produces toxins and bacteria that are harmful to humans.

Sewers are a more convenient and modern technology for areas with populations at least as dense as Suffolk County. But, more importantly, sewer systems are also a crucial line of defense for our drinking water and the healthy waterways we treasure.

Legislators and community members complain all the time about how Suffolk needs to hook up more properties to sewer systems, but they also say there’s no money to do it. County Executive Steve Bellone’s proposal to charge an additional $1 per 1,000 gallons of water used — and to put those dollars into a special account dedicated to sewering Suffolk — could help.

The funds collected would be used in conjunction with other funding, such as from Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s $383 million initiative to support clean water infrastructure.

To put Bellone’s proposed surcharge into perspective, that’s $1 for every 50 days of showers for a family of four, based on average water usage numbers from the U.S. Geological Survey. It’s another $1 for roughly every 333 toilet flushes. Add $1 for every 40 loads of laundry in a newer model of washing machine.

For a single-person measurement, each person uses about 80-100 gallons of water each day, according to the federal agency. Those on the higher end of the spectrum, then, would be dishing out $1 every 10 days with the goal of a healthier environment — or just shy of $37 a year.

Reaching deeper into taxpayers’ pockets is not ideal, but there is simply no other way to produce sewer funding of the magnitude Suffolk County needs without asking the public to chip in somehow.

Bellone’s proposal needs state approval before the measure can go onto ballots in November for voters to weigh in. We hope our neighbors would support the surcharge.

Left to right, state Assemblyman Steve Englebright, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state Sen. John Flanagan discuss the plan. Photo from Cuomo’s office

Keeping the state’s drinking water clean and safe is a subject anyone can get behind, and New York lawmakers across both major parties did just that.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo introduced a series of aggressive water quality initiatives last week in the company of elected officials representing the North Shore in an attempt to better protect public health and the environment. His proposals received great praise from both Democrats and Republicans as a common-sense way to keep New York’s water clean.

“Every New Yorker has a fundamental right to clean and safe drinking water,” Cuomo said. “Water is a priceless resource that requires the highest levels of protection, and I am proud to continue this administration’s legacy of standing up for the environment. We are taking aggressive and proactive steps to ensure clean and healthy communities throughout the state — both for current residents and for generations to come.”

Joining Cuomo at a Stony Brook University discussion on the state’s newest water initiatives were Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D), state Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport), state Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) and more. At that discussion, Cuomo pitched his statewide water quality rapid response team, which he said would work to identify and develop plans to address critical drinking water contamination concerns as well as groundwater and surface water contamination problems.

“It’s imperative that we all work together at the local, state and federal levels to protect the public health,” Bellone said. “The actions that Governor Cuomo has announced today are demonstrating unequivocally that New York is taking proactive measures to not just meet that standard, but to really raise the bar on the protection of water quality.”

Cuomo said the rapid response team would be working to develop a comprehensive action plan to immediately address water quality issues raised by municipalities and concerned citizens, taking on matters ranging from currently regulated contaminants like lead, to emerging contaminants, like perfluorooctanoic acid. It was a plan that his fellow lawmakers said was easy to get behind.

“We are blessed in New York State and on Long Island to have the availability of high-quality drinking water, but we also have a responsibility to protect it,” Flanagan said. “At the end of the day, nothing is more important to New Yorkers and their families than the air they breathe and the water they drink.”

The team will also review and incorporate the best available science and may include new review standards for currently unregulated contaminants, enhanced testing and oversight of drinking water systems, including private wells, and state-of-the-art drinking water treatment options.

“Creating an agenda to safeguard the quality of Long Island’s water source is great news — not only for the health of New Yorkers — but for the environment as well,” Englebright said. “Governor Cuomo’s work to ensure that every New Yorker has access to safe, clean drinking water is a testament to his commitment to statewide public health. The implementation of a water quality rapid response team is a proactive way to protect the environment from harmful water contamination and keep New Yorkers’ drinking water clean and safe.”

The discussion over drinking water came in the weeks following a horrific drinking water crisis in Flint, Michigan, where officials have been scrambling to combat unsafe and potentially life-threatening water contaminations.

The governor also proposed regulations to be imposed on mulch-processing facilities to safeguard natural resources. Cuomo said the Department of Environmental Conservation would propose for public comment draft regulations for mulch facilities to increase oversight and provide enhanced safeguards. The proposed regulations would require facilities to establish water runoff management plans to protect groundwater and place restrictions on pile size and storage to reduce the risk of fires, odor and dust.

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Pumping nitrogen into our local waters can contribute to fish kills and have other nasty environmental effects. File photo by Rachel Shapiro

There is no need more basic than clean water. We need it in its simplest form to survive, but we also need it to be clean so that it can sustain the animals and plants we eat and support the environments we live in. So why aren’t we trying harder to avoid pumping it with toxins?

Tens of thousands of dead bunker fish have recently washed up on eastern Long Island, killed by low levels of dissolved oxygen in the water. Algal blooms are a cause of those low oxygen levels, and that’s where we come in — the blooms, in turn, can be caused by excess nitrogen in the water. How does that nitrogen get there? It can come from our septic and sewage treatment systems and from the fertilizers we use on our nicely manicured lawns, to name just a few sources.

We may not be able to avoid using the toilet, but we can easily refrain from dumping fertilizers with harmful chemicals into the ground and our water supply. But many of us are operating on obsolete waste systems and our governments should be making it a top priority — in action, not just rhetoric — to move communities over from septic to sewer.

This is undoubtedly a costly process, but it has benefits beyond the immediate. For example, sewer systems enable and encourage development, which is important for all of the downtown areas we are working to revitalize. Revitalized downtowns could help keep young people on Long Island, reversing the brain drain that is the source of such frequent sound bites for our politicians.

Shoring up our water management plans would create a ripple effect throughout so many other important items on our political and social agendas. Without clean water, none of these ambitious improvements will be achieved. We are calling for a heightened awareness from both our neighbors and our public officials not to let our water initiatives run dry.

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