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Hypoxia

Co-Director of Stony Brook University's Center for Clean Water Technology Howard Walker demonstrates how sand is used in a prototype of a new Nitrogen Reducing Biofilter at press conference in Shirley April 26. Photo by Kyle Barr

Scientists and engineers from Stony Brook University are planning to use two plentiful Long Island resources to save its coastal waters from nitrogen pollution: sand and wood chips.

Members of the New York State-funded Center for Clean Water Technology at Stony Brook University unveiled their nitrogen-reducing biofilter April 26 at a Suffolk County-owned home in Shirley.

“We have made a huge commitment to protect and preserve our land as we are protecting the groundwater below,” said New York state Sen. Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson). “We are zeroing in on our water, and we are making a major commitment with systems like these.”

“The results that we’ve gained have been very exciting.”

— Howard Walker

Through the system, waste from the home is first pumped into a septic tank. After the septic tank the effluent is moved into a separate system that trickles down by gravity, first going through a sand layer where bacteria turns the nitrogen into nitrite and nitrate. The waste then goes through another layer of sand and wood chips designed to turn the nitrite/nitrate into nitrogen gas that will go into the atmosphere, instead of into the ground and thus Long Island’s water.

The system being built in Shirley is one of three the center is testing as part of Suffolk County’s bid to create a nitrogen reducing home wastewater system.

“We have outstanding professionals who are helping to guide these efforts,” Deputy County Executive Peter Scully said. “We should be able to involve ourselves in the designing of the next generation of this technology, bringing the cost down [and] making the technology more effective.”

One of the biggest problems for Long Island’s coastal waters has been hypoxia, a state caused by excess nitrogen, where the oxygen level in water is below the necessary levels to support life. It affects fish, clams and any underwater plant life. Last year co-director of the Center for Clean Water Technology, Christopher Gobler and other researchers from the Long Island Clean Water Partnership, concluded there were cases of hypoxia in Stony Brook Harbor, Northport Bay, Oyster Bay, Hempstead Bay as well as waters all along both the North and South shores.

In 2015 Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) called nitrogen pollution the county’s “environmental public enemy number one.” Since then the county has worked with local scientists and engineers to craft technology that could replace Long Island’s old cesspool and septic tanks.

The benchmark for total amount of nitrogen allowed from any of these new systems is 19 milligrams of nitrogen per liter. Co-director at the Center for Clean Water Technology, Howard Walker, said that initial tests of the system have reached well below that threshold.

“We’re seeing less than 10 milligrams per liter of total nitrogen coming from the systems in the prototypes we’ve been testing for the past year and a half,” Walker said. “The results that we’ve gained have been very exciting.”

“We are zeroing in on our water, and we are making a major commitment with systems like these.”

— Ken LaValle

The purpose of the prototypes is to gauge the effectiveness of the system as well as find ways to reduce the price and size of the filter. The center hopes the system will be affordable since all the parts could be bought from plumbing or pool supply stores. Gobler said the system currently costs several tens of thousands of dollars in its prototype stage, but he hopes the cost will come down with more tests.

“This is nonproprietary — all other systems are built off of Long Island and then brought here, this one is using Long Island materials, Long Island labor,” Gobler said. “Ultimately without having to run a company or without having to buy something off the shelf, there’s a promise to make these highly affordable.”

Other nitrogen filters have problems when it comes to people flushing any kind of bleach, pharmaceuticals or other harmful chemicals because they kill off the bacteria that remove the nitrogen from the effluent, according to Gobler. He said the design of SBU’s nitrogen-reducing biofilter will be less prone to failure because the waste is spread over a large area, and because it seeps through the layers of sand at a slower rate the killing effect of chemicals would be reduced.

“One bad flush is not going to upturn the apple cart,” Gobler said. “We’ve tested more than 30 different organic compounds, pharmaceuticals, personal care products, drugs, and in all cases its removing 90
percent of those compounds, sometimes 99 percent. In certain cases, it’s just as good or even better than a sewage treatment plant.”

The Center for Clean Water Technology hopes to have concrete results on its prototypes in a year’s time. After that a provisional phase would take place where the center would install another 20 filters in other parts of Long Island.

Stony Brook University professor Christopher Gobler discusses the quality of local bodies of water at a press conference Sept. 12. Photo by Kyle Barr

By Kyle Barr

There’s still something in the water — and it’s not a good kind of something.

Scientists from the Stony Brook University School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences released an annual report highlighting the concern over the prolonged existence of toxic algae blooms, and a deficiency of oxygen in Long Island waters caused high levels of nitrogen.

Stony Brook Professor Christopher Gobler and several members of the advocacy collective Long Island Clean Water Partnership, a conglomerate of several Long Island environmental groups, revealed the findings of a study done from May to August.

The Roth Pond, a Stony Brook University body of water that plays host to the annual Roth Regatta, is affected by blue-green algae. File photo from Stony Brook University

“In order to make Long Island sustainable and livable, clean water needs to be established,” said Adrienne Esposito, the executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment. “The challenge has been very great over the last decade … though the problem, unfortunately, is getting a bit worse. Algae blooms and the degradation of water quality across Long Island are serious threats to Long Island’s health.”

On the North Shore, there are several severe cases of hypoxia, or a depletion of dissolved oxygen in water, which is necessary for sea life to survive. Cases were found in Stony Brook Harbor, Northport Bay, Oyster Bay and Hempstead Bay. Measured on a milligram per liter of water scale,any case of hypoxia below two milligrams per liter can be harmful to fish, and almost anything else living on the bottom of the bays.

There were also periodic outbreaks of blue-green algae in Lake Ronkonkoma and Stony Brook University’s Roth Pond. This algae releases a poison harmful to humans and animals, but Gobler said students at the university shouldn’t worry, because he and other scientists at Stony Brook are constantly monitoring the water, especially before the annual Roth Regatta.

“[If nothing is done] the areas could expand — it could get more intense,” Gobler said. “We use a cutoff of three milligrams per liter, which is bad, but of course you can go to zero. An area like Hempstead Harbor went to zero, [Northport and Oyster Bays] went to zero at some points in time. There’s a usual day-night cycle, so it’s at night that the levels get very, very low.”

“We have the problem growing worse, and it is going to get worse before it gets better.”

—Dick Amper

As a result of the possibility of hypoxia expanding, Gobler said he and other scientists have also been monitoring Port Jefferson Harbor and Setauket Harbor.

Though Setauket Harbor is not currently experiencing any problems with hypoxia or algae, the harbor has experienced periods of pathogens, like E. coli, some of which were born from runoff into the harbor, but others might have come from leakage of antiquated cesspools in the area, according to George Hoffman, a trustee of the Setauket Harbor Task Force, which is also a member of the Clean Water Partnership.

Next May the task force hopes to start monitoring directly inside Setauket Harbor. Runoff from lawn fertilizers can also increase the nitrogen levels in the harbor.

“If our problem isn’t hypoxia, we have a problem with pathogens,” Hoffman said in a phone interview. “Prevention is really [Dr. Gobbler’s] goal — to know what is happening and to start taking steps. I think people’s information levels [on the topic] are high in the surface waters that they live by.”

In addition to hypoxia and blue-green algae, some of the water quality problems found in the assessment were brown tides on the South Shore, rust tide in the Peconic bays and paralytic shellfish poisoning on the East End — all of which are also nitrogen level issues that can be  traced back to cesspool sewage and fertilizers.

Port Jefferson Harbor is being monitored due to the speading of hypoxia across local bodies of water. File photo by Alex Petroski

“Make no mistake about it, this is so big that even … still, we have the problem growing worse, and it is going to get worse before it gets better,” said Dick Amper, the director of The Long Island Pine Barrens Society. “What’s the solution to this problem? We have to do more.”

There have been several efforts to help curb water degradation on Long Island. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) signed legislation in April that put $2.5 billion toward clean water protection, improving water infrastructure and building new sewer systems in Smithtown and Kings Park, and adding a rebate program for those upgrading outdated septic systems.

Despite doing more, the repairs will take some time.

“This is going to be a long, long marathon,” said Kevin McDonald, the conservation project director at The Nature Conservancy said.

There is also worry that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — announcing the dumping of dredged materials into Long Island Sound — could compound the problem.

“We have more political funding and will try to implement solutions,” Esposito said. “The problems are getting worse, but the solutions are becoming clearer.”

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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