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Long Island Sound

Suffolk County demonstrates new denitrifying septic systems installed in county resident's homes. Photo from Suffolk County executive’s office

Suffolk County will look to address the ongoing issue of nitrogen pollution in surface and groundwater with an ambitious plan that will look to transition away from the reliance on cesspools and septic systems. 

The Subwatersheds Wastewater Plan, which would invest $4 billion to combat nitrogen pollution, would last more than 50 years and sets a blueprint for the county to replace hundreds of thousands of old and inadequate septic systems. 

A map detailing the phases of the proposed project. Images from Suffolk County. Click for full view.

The plan sets a goal for the county to eliminate 253,000 cesspools and septic systems by replacing them with new nitrogen reducing systems or by connecting them to existing sewers. According to Suffolk health officials, approximately 74 percent of the county remains unsewered, so individual residences and businesses rely on antiquated onsite wastewater disposal systems. Studies show that about 70 percent of the nitrogen input to local bays comes from approximately 360,000 cesspools and septic systems.

“Scientists have warned that continued reliance on primitive wastewater disposal systems is a mounting threat to both our environment and our economy,” said Dr. James Tomarken, Suffolk health commissioner. “Now, for the first time, there is a long-term plan to diminish nitrogen pollution and put Suffolk County on a path to cleaner, healthier water resources.”

The SWP has highlighted more than 190 individual watershed areas in Suffolk County and established goals and recommendations for reducing nitrogen inputs into each area. If those goals are met, health officials said it will begin to reverse the decline in water quality within 10 years and bring it back to a more pristine condition.

To get that process started, officials said the county will use more than $500 million in already allocated grant sources toward the replacement of 10,000 cesspools and septic systems and expand connections to sewer systems over the next four years as part of the first phase of the plan. 

“This plan represents the first meaningful strategy to address legacy septic nitrogen pollution since countywide sewering objectives were abandoned some four decades ago,” Walter Dawydiak, director of Environmental Quality for Suffolk County, said. “In those four decades, we learned a great deal about how toxic excess nitrogen is to the ecosystem. However, we consistently failed to solve the single largest environmental health problems of our generation. Finally, we have a response plan that will restore our ecosystems and protect our drinking water.”

In the second phase of the plan, which would begin 2024, the county would look to eliminate more than 177,000 cesspools and septic systems near shorelines and high priority areas. It also recommends a requirement that cesspools and septic systems be replaced with new technology when properties change hands, or when those cesspools and septic systems fail. Officials estimate that the requirement could increase the number of cesspools eliminated from 1,000 to more than 5,000 per year. 

The third phase of the SWP will tackle all other priority areas during a 15-year period. The fourth and final phase would address the remaining areas of the county beginning in 2068.

Currently, county grants of up to $20,000 are available for residents who qualify and wish to replace their cesspool. There is also an additional state grant of up to $10,000, which can mean a total of up to $30,000. 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 previous reporting by TBR News Media. Contractors will need to register the system with the Department of Health Services.

The SWP will undergo a detailed review by the county’s Council on Environmental Quality and will include an environmental impact statement which is expected sometime in mid-August, according to officials. From there, a 30-day comment period will begin, with two public hearings being scheduled.

East Beach in Port Jefferson is getting smaller due to erosion, according to a consulting firm contracted by the village. Photo by Alex Petroski

The Town of Brookhaven has finally accepted a bid for the Mount Sinai Jetty restoration project, setting the town up to start reconstruction on the damaged jetty at the mouth of Mount Sinai Harbor.

Bay Shore-based H&L Contracting won the bid at a total of just over $7.4 million. The next lowest bid came in from SumCo Eco-Contracting of Massachusetts at almost $8 million.

“Quite frankly this was the hardest part.”

— Jane Bonner

Issues with the jetties have been on the town’s radar from way back. “It’s been 11 long years,” said Councilwoman Jane Bonner (R-Rocky Point). “But good things come to those who wait.”

Rocks have collapsed, submerging the seaward ends of the jetties at high tide, while the elevation of the jetty stones above the water at high tide was less than 4 feet in some places. Holes in the jetty had also allowed sand to run through, causing further erosion to surrounding bluffs and beachfronts. The western jetty has been of particular concern to neighboring Port Jefferson village and its beaches.

At the June 6 meeting, town Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) thanked Bonner for her work on acquiring the funds for the jetty repairs.

“It will benefit all those who use the harbor,” he said.

In September 2016, the town received $3 million in a Dormitory Authority of the State of New York grant, originally secured through New York state Sen. Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson). An additional $5.6 million for the project is coming from the town, partially out of a bond.

Bonner said there is another follow-up meeting required before the date can be set when the repairs will take place, though she suspects construction should begin in either fall or winter of this year or the start of next year, well after the summer season has ended. 

Further meetings will be held to determine where and when the project will begin, though the councilwoman said she hopes construction will last only one season, but it’s dependent on how mild the following winter will be.

Mount Sinai Harbor. File photo by Alex Petroski

“Quite frankly this was the hardest part,” Bonner said about coming up with funds for the project. “We’re very pleased with the bid, and then we roll it out.”

The town is hoping Suffolk County will complete their annual dredging after the jetties are fully repaired.

Meanwhile, officials in the Village of Port Jefferson relished the news of the bids being awarded for the dredging project. Trustees have held off on several major renovations to East Beach surrounding the country club because of those damaged jetties. 

Port Jeff Mayor Margot Garant said the village is in contact with the county about getting that sand back for East Beach once the harbor is dredged.

The news about the finalized bid was met with pleasant surprise at the village’s June 3 meeting. Garant said the village hopes they will receive a permit from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to start construction of a retaining wall on the bluffs outside of the Port Jefferson Country Club. She said the DEC approved the village’s plans May 15. 

Officials said they may wait until after the county finishes their dredging to get their sand back before starting on repairs to the bluff.

Police arrive at location of stranded mariners in their raft. Photo from SCPD
The three men rescued from off the Old Field coast in the Long Island Sound. Photo by SCPD

Suffolk police rescued three men who became stranded in a six-foot inflatable raft in the Long Island Sound May 19.

Suffolk County Police Marine Bureau officers were notified by the U.S. Coast Guard at approximately 4:30 p.m. of an inflatable raft with three male occupants that were unable to make it back to shore. The three were fishing in the Long Island Sound, near Crane Neck Road in Old Field, when they were pulled approximately two miles off shore. Their boat did not have a motor and they were unable to paddle back due to winds blowing between 15 and 20 miles per hour.

Marine Bureau officers Robert Daniels and Peter Bogachunas responded in Marine Delta and located the men within 15 minutes of the initial call. All three occupants, Martin Villatoro, 23, Erick Villatoro, 26, and Ronald Benitez, 17, all of Bay Shore, were transported in Marine Delta, along with their raft, to Sunken Meadow State Park.

All three were wearing life vests and they were not injured.

Pete Lopez, the regional administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, speaks about funds. Photo by Kyle Barr

Local environmental groups are anticipating expanding Long Island Sound education and cleanup initiatives, thanks to both state and federal funds.

As part of the 14th annual National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s Long Island Sound Futures Fund initiative, federal and New York State officials announced Dec. 3 that 36 new grants totaling $2.57 million will go to environmental groups in Connecticut and New York, and $586,000 of those funds will benefit New York organizations.

“The funding is seed money investment for launching additional resources, pulling people together and bringing people together in conversation,” said Pete Lopez, the regional administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

U.S Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) attended the event in the Port Jefferson Village Center and spoke about the grants. Photo by Kyle Barr

Lynn Dwyer, the program director of the fund, said the projects were selected by an unbiased, unaffiliated group of environmental experts. The money is reaching these groups as experts say the marine life in the sound has come under threat. In September the Long Island Clean Water Partnership, an advocacy collective supported by the Rauch Foundation, released its yearly report that showed dangerous amounts of poisonous algae blooms in coastal regions from Port Jefferson Harbor to Huntington Harbor. In addition, more and more areas are expressing hypoxia, or a lack of oxygen in water necessary to support marine life. Experts in the partnership said both of these are due to excess amounts of nitrogen in the water, mostly due to aging septic tanks and cesspools all across Long Island.

Several of the projects center on beach cleanup and environmental stewardship. The North Fork-based nonprofit Group for the East End will be receiving $67,542 to remove invasive plants and develop habitat restoration plans for the Hallock State Park Preserve in Riverhead.

Environmental advocacy group Citizens Campaign for the Environment received $45,000 in grants to conduct a public education campaign to reduce plastic pollution on local beaches in both Nassau and Suffolk counties. Adrienne Esposito, the director of CCE, said the project will gather 500 pledges to reduce throw-away plastic use and engage close to 200 volunteers in coastal cleanups on beaches across the North Shore. The group will be adding an additional $45,000 in matching funds from its own funds for the project.

“We will be distributing reusable metal straws, so people can use those in place of plastic straws,” Esposito said.

In addition to the public education campaign, which will start in January 2019, she said the advocacy group is commissioning a local artist to build a giant metal wire-mesh turtle to be placed in Sunken Meadow State Park. The turtle will be filled with all the plastic debris the volunteers pick-up during their beach cleanup to be viewable by the public. Esposito said she expects the beach cleanup and mesh turtle to be done during summer 2019.

“These birds depend on our Long Island beaches to safely nest, rest, forage and raise their young without the threat of disturbance.” — Sharon Bruce 

The New York chapter of the National Audubon Society is receiving $41,009 from the fund for its continuing Be a Good Egg environmental education program encouraging people to share the waterside with shorebirds. The society will be focusing its efforts on a number of beaches, including at Hallock State Park Preserve, Stony Brook Harbor and along Nissequogue River. Sharon Bruce, the communications manager for Audubon New York, said some of the birds they wish to protect include the piping plover, least tern and American oystercatcher, all of which nest directly on the sand.

“These birds depend on our Long Island beaches to safely nest, rest, forage and raise their young without the threat of disturbance,” Bruce said.

Other projects look to beautify and increase biodiversity in coastal areas. The Long Island Explorium, located in Port Jefferson Village, is receiving $43,626 in grant funds to install native plant rain gardens in high visibility areas such as in front of its building on East Broadway and the corner of East Broadway and Main Street.

“There’s a visual component to it and an educational component,” said Angeline Judex, Long Island Explorium executive director. “It will show to the 800,000 visitors to [Port Jefferson Village] how rain gardens improve the water quality of the harbor.”

Choppy conditions in Port Jefferson Harbor forced the cancellation of the race portion of the 2018 Village Cup Regatta Sept. 8,  but the annual fundraiser was a success anyway.

For the ninth year, the Port Jefferson Yacht Club and the Port Jefferson Village Center were the home for the event, which features a parade past the village-owned pier at Harborfront Park, a race out in the open water between sailboats representing the village and John T. Mather Memorial Hospital, and a banquet to conclude the festivities. This year, conditions weren’t conducive to holding the race, but the event still raised about $70,000 for two worthy causes, according to Mather’s Facebook page.

Funds raised by the regatta will be split between Mather Hospital’s Palliative Medicine Program and the Lustgarten Foundation for Pancreatic Cancer Research.

For the sixth year,  actor/director and local resident Ralph Macchio served as community ambassador for the event. Macchio helps to publicize the important work of the two programs funded by the regatta. His wife, Phyllis, is a nurse practitioner in Mather’s Palliative Medicine Program.

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This skiff belonging to Wen Zhong Wang, 37, of Ronkonkoma, was found empty in the Long Island Sound. Photo from SCPD

A man spent 45 minutes treading water in the Long Island Sound Sept. 4 after being knocked off his small boat by a wake, according to Suffolk County police. The man was rescued from the water after his unoccupied skiff was spotted floating in the Sound.

Marine Bureau officers Cory Kim and Gregory Stroh responded aboard Marine Delta after a fisherman reported finding an unoccupied skiff floating in the Long Island Sound at about 12 p.m. Tuesday, police said. While officers were responding to that call, a 911 caller reported a person yelling for help in the water off Old Field Road in Setauket.

Officers Kim and Stroh located the man, Wen Zhong Wang, 37, of Ronkonkoma, approximately 1/10 of a mile from shore. Wang, who was not wearing a life jacket, had been in the water approximately 45 minutes after he was knocked off his 9-foot skiff when it was hit by wake from a passing boat. Wang was transported to the Port Jefferson boat ramp where he was evaluated by Port Jefferson Ambulance personnel and released.

The fisherman towed the boat to shore where it was secured by the Port Jefferson Harbormaster.

A Suffolk County Police Department boat. File photo by Alex Petroski

An overturned kayak in the Long Island Sound required emergency rescue services from the Suffolk County Police Department Aug. 23.

The Suffolk County Police Department received a 911 call regarding a man who was in distress after his kayak overturned in the Long Island Sound, approximately two miles north of the Shoreham Nuclear Power Plant at 11:52 a.m. Thursday, according to police. Aviation Section Officers John Carey and Richard Davin responded in the police helicopter, located the kayaker and guided Marine Bureau Officers Steven Tarolli and Christopher Erickson, who were onboard Marine Delta, to the victim. Officers Tarolli and Erickson were able to pull the victim onto the boat. The Wading River Fire Department and Town of Brookhaven Bay Constable assisted in the rescue.

The victim, Andrew Punella, 61, of Queens, was transported by the Wading River Fire Department to Peconic Bay Medical Center in Riverhead for treatment of hypothermia.

Long Island Sound. File photo

Suffolk County Police Marine Bureau officers rescued three men after their canoe overturned in the Long Island Sound in Northport Friday.

An employee of PSEG’s Northport Power Station observed three males in the Long Island Sound hanging onto their canoe that had overturned approximately 300 yards off shore July 6, according to police. The individual called Suffolk County Police Marine Bureau directly and Officers Paul Carnival, Keith Walters and John Falcone responded at approximately 2:50 p.m.

The officers arrived approximately three minutes later and assisted Javier Villatoro, 27, of Brentwood, his brother Jose Villatoro, 25, of Central Islip and Odir Vilorio, 30, of Huntington Station, onto Marine Bravo. Villatoro was the only person wearing a life jacket.

The men and their canoe were transported to the Soundview boat ramp in Northport. The men refused medical attention.

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.

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The Bridgeport & Port Jefferson Steamboat ferry company is temporarily operating with a significantly scaled down schedule. File photo

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) made some waves that could be seen from the shore in Port Jefferson during his State of the State address earlier this month, specifically regarding plans for infrastructure spanning the Long Island Sound.

During his Jan. 3 speech, Cuomo revived the decades-old idea of building a bridge or tunnel that would connect Long Island to New England.

“We should continue to pursue a tunnel from Long Island to Westchester or Connecticut,” he said. “New York State Department of Transportation has determined it’s feasible, it would be under water, it would be invisible, it would reduce traffic on the impossibly congested Long Island Expressway and would offer significant potential private investment.”

In December 2017, the DOT released a final draft of a Long Island Sound Crossing Feasibility Study that examined the potential of building a bridge or bridge-tunnel combination at five different sites. The 87-page study concluded that it could be economically feasible at three different locations: Oyster Bay to Port Chester/Rye; Kings Park to Bridgeport, Connecticut; and Kings Park to Devon, Connecticut.

State Assemblyman Mike Fitzpatrick (R-St. James) and Suffolk County Legislator Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga), whose jurisdictions each include Kings Park, voiced vehement opposition to the plan.

Stakeholders in Port Jefferson are also unsure if the governor’s grand plan would be a good idea.

“In the back of every ferry operator’s brain is the possibility that a bridge or tunnel could replace a ferry route,” said Fred Hall, vice president and general manager of the Bridgeport & Port Jefferson Steamboat Company. “Given the complexity of a project such as the governor envisions, I think there will be some environmental concerns and some ‘not in my back yard concerns.’”

Hall stopped short of saying the hypothetical tunnel or bridge would harm ferry business, though he said he’d like to know where exactly the infrastructure would go before being completely for or against it. It’s far from the first time projects like this have been floated in the past, a point reiterated by state Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) whose district includes Port Jeff.

“I’m not sure about a bridge or tunnel, but an enhanced ferry service — invest in it, make it more efficient,” he said. He also said he would be concerned by the possible impact a massive infrastructure project like this would have on the ecosystem of the Sound.

The DOT feasibility study concluded the department should move forward with the next step: A five-year environmental evaluation process looking at the impact construction and the bridge would have.

“Gov. Cuomo has directed DOT to conduct additional engineering, environmental and financial analysis to determine the best path forward for this transformative project,” DOT spokesman Joseph Morrissey said in a statement. “DOT will closely examine any potential impacts as well as benefits to the local communities as part of the process.”