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Nitrogen Pollution

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.

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Officials gather to see the cesspool at Alan Marvin’s house in Nesconset on Thursday, Sept. 24. Photo by Victoria Espinoza

By John Kominicki

Cutting the ribbon on a new shopping center used to be an elected official’s most-prized photo op. Today, it’s unveiling a septic system install.

That’s real progress on a couple of fronts. First, there is scientific evidence that suggests Long Island will actually sink if anybody builds another shopping center here. More importantly, it shows that sewage has finally taken its rightful place, front and center, in the minds of local pols.

And about time. The region’s aquifers, which supply residents with almost 140 billion gallons of fresh water a year, are showing signs of real distress, with rising nitrogen levels from wastewater and storm runoff that’s laced with lawn, golf course and farm fertilizers.

Phosphorus is also on the rise, and new pollutants, from flushed pharmaceutical and personal care products, have been found in our drinking water lately.

I’ll pause for a collective, “Eeew.”

What’s so bad about nitrogen, you ask? Basically, that it thrives on oxygen, which, as you may remember from high school, is a pretty important part of H2O. Get too much nitrogen in your water supply and you have to worry about bad things, like methemoglobinemia, which is better known as Blue Baby Syndrome. The name pretty much tells you everything you need to know.

Nitrogen in our rivers, lakes and seas also fertilizes oxygen-sucking algae, which have been known to cause giant oceanic dead zones, completely devoid of other plant life or aquatic species. The algae can also choke out coastal grasses and other plant life that slow down the tidal waves associated with storms that have names.

Storms with names like “Sandy,” for instance.

Nitrogen levels are a problem for both our counties, but in different ways. Nassau’s issue is the outflow from its waste treatment facilities, which is discharged way too close to shore and is responsible for the spread of an especially foul-smelling, marsh-killing algae called sea lettuce. The county would like to shoot the effluent a couple miles out to sea, but it needs financial help – $600 million ought to do it – to get the job done.

Maybe some of our friends in Albany are reading this.

Suffolk’s problem is on the intake. With huge swaths of the county still unsewered – for more, do a Google search of “Southwest Sewer District Scandal” – residents rely largely on septic tanks and cesspools, which do little more than strain waste through the soil and, eventually, back into the aquifer.

Another, “Eeew” is appropriate.

Now, back to the photo op, where we saw Suffolk Executive Steve Bellone (D) posing recently beside a large hole in the yard of Nesconset’s Jim Minet, one of 19 lucky winners of the county’s advanced wastewater treatment systems lottery. The prize: A $15,000 Hydro Action “extended aeration” system that keeps micro-organisms at the buffet longer, reducing exiting nitrogen levels by as much as 80 percent.

Nineteen advanced wastewater treatment systems are a nice start, but with 400,000 septic tanks in the county, the program obviously has a ways to go. What’s important is that Bellone and Nassau counterpart Ed Mangano (R) are proactively working the clean water issue and lobbying mightily for the state and federal financial aid needed to move local efforts along.

Good on them. Perhaps they understand that elected office is, itself, a lot like a sewer.

What you get out of it, after all, depends almost entirely on what you put into it.

The author works as the editor of www.InnovateLI.com and is also a columnist for the Long Island Index blog, a project of the Rauch Foundation.

An expert panel at Stony Brook University discusses environmental issues facing Long Island. Photo by Talia Amorosano

By Talia Amorosano

After a month of increased algal blooms, reduced water quality and two of the most severe fish kills the county has ever experienced, Long Island scientists and officials have decided it is past time — yet about time — to address the issue of harmful nitrogen pollution in our waterways.

Hosted by the New York League of Conservation Voters Education Fund, a forum on water pollution in Suffolk County was held at Stony Brook University’s Charles B. Wang Center on June 23 to identify the core causes of nitrogen pollution and brainstorm functional, cost-effective technological solutions.

In his welcome address, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) emphasized the gravity of the problem.

“This problem wasn’t created overnight, and it won’t be solved overnight,” he said. “Big challenges like this won’t be solved in election cycles.”

But he has noticed signs of progress.

“To see this group all coming together, saying we’re going to work to solve this problem, gives me great hope and optimism that we have actually turned the corner and we are now on the road to addressing our water quality issues in a real way.”

At the forefront of the technical and technological sides of this progress are panelists Walter Dawydiak, director of the Suffolk County Department of Health Services; Amanda Ludlow, a scientist at Roux Associates Inc.; Theresa McGovern, a water resources engineer at VHB; and Harold Walker, a professor of Mechanical and Civil Engineering at Stony Brook University.

Dawydiak identified unsewered septic flow as the main source of the nitrogen problem.

“Nitrogen, which we expected to level off, is not leveling off,” he said.

He noted that 85 percent of unsewered septic flow originates in residential areas.

“The elephant in the room is us.”

He said a change in health department standards for residential wastewater treatment — for the first time in 40 years — could mitigate the problem by regulating the installation, operation, and maintenance of septic systems. He referred to this proposed set of regulations as an example of policy driving the technology to where it needs to be.

“We need better technology in this area,” Walker said. “If we’re going to solve this problem, we need to expand the tool box that we have available. … We need to think about systems operating effectively for as long as possible, with little or no maintenance. That’s the challenge.”

Ludlow agreed, and emphasized the importance of implementing systems that treat nitrogen and other pollutants, like pharmaceuticals and hormones, on the 360,000 homes running on old systems: “Focus on technologies that affect all the constituents in our wastewater.”

McGovern said that a holistic yet specific approach to wastewater management would make improvements possible.

“We need to be consistent and science-based with the targets, yet still allow some flexibility,” she said. She suggested setting a universal — instead of concentration-based — limit on the amount of nitrogen allowed to remain in wastewater, while allowing households that consistently perform under that limit increased wastewater flow.

Of course, new technologies and oversight costs money. During the second panel discussion on funding proposals, Suffolk County Planning Commission co-chair David Calone suggested using Hurricane Sandy recovery funds to improve storm-water drainage and prevent sewage from entering waterways.

Dorian Dale, director of sustainability and chief recovery officer for Suffolk County, noted that, though the $16 million of Sandy relief money would cover some of the cost for improvements, it could not provide the minimum $8 billion necessary to replace 360,000 septic systems.

He said changing the tax on drinking water from a base price to one that reflects household usage could help close the gap.

Calone brought up the possibility of reaching out for federal funding and increasing the cap on private activity bonds to spur work on water quality issues.

“Involving the private sector is where we’ve shown a lot of leadership on Long Island,” said Anna Throne-Holst, Southampton Town supervisor. “It has to be a public/private partnership.”

The panelists were optimistic about the county’s ability to undertake the project.

“The last sewer project, 40 years ago, was rife with cesspool corruption,” Dale said. “I don’t think anybody’s going to have time for the shenanigans of the past.”

Throne-Holst expressed her faith that the public will remain informed and engaged on this issue.

“The public education process is well underway,” she said. “People are well aware of what a crisis this is.”

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