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Pollution

A local effort to ban a popular ingredient in beauty products has support on the federal level.

U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman visited Long Island recently to announce the Microbead-Free Waters Act of 2015, a bipartisan federal bill that would ban cosmetics containing plastic pellets called microbeads, which are frequently smaller than 1 millimeter in diameter and are found in face washes, shampoos, beauty products and other soaps.

Because of their size, most wastewater treatment systems are unable to filter out the microbeads, so they are released into local waterways like the Long Island Sound. But microbeads accumulate toxins in the water, and fish and birds ingest them. Public health could be at risk if the fish are reeled in and eaten.

Schneiderman reported that about 19 tons of the small pellets pass through New York wastewater treatment plants each year.

Gillibrand’s bill has sponsors and co-sponsors from both sides of the aisle, most of them from the Midwest, according to a press release from the senator’s office. It is similar to a New York state-level bill of the same name, which is Schneiderman’s effort to prohibit the sale and distribution of products containing microbeads.

“These tiny pieces of plastic have already caused significant ecological damage to New York’s waterways,” Gillibrand said, “and they will continue to do so until they are removed from the marketplace.”

The state bill passed the Assembly in the last session but was not put up for a vote in the Senate, despite having more co-sponsors than the number of votes it would have needed to pass.

New York is not alone in pushing to ban microbeads — Illinois has already given them the axe, and other states are considering similar legislation.

Many local residents first heard about the issue when Suffolk County Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) led her colleagues to passing a law that required the county to study how a microbead ban would affect health and the economy.

She commended officials for their anti-microbead effort on the national stage.

“The threat posed by microbead waste is of national consequence,” Hahn said in the press release. “The cumbersome task of tackling this issue [from] municipality to municipality and state to state will never prove as effective as a federal approach.”

Adrienne Esposito, the executive director of the local Citizens Campaign for the Environment, said there are other effective alternatives to microbeads, such as apricot shells, salt and oatmeal.

“The public expects facial soaps and toothpaste to clean our face and teeth, not pollute our waters,” Esposito said. “Plastic microbeads pollute our waters, contaminate our fish and shellfish, and could end up back on our dinner plates. They are completely unnecessary.”

Town officials are limiting development at the former site of Lawrence Aviation Industries. File photo

By Elana Glowatz & Erika Karp

Brookhaven Town will restrict development at a polluted site in Port Jefferson Station using a special zoning district.

The town board approved the new zoning for the former property of aircraft-parts manufacturer Lawrence Aviation Industries on Thursday night, several months after approving a land use plan for the site off Sheep Pasture Road that called for the special district.

Adjacent to a stretch of the Greenway Trail and some residences in the northern part of the hamlet, the site requires closer inspection because of its history — Lawrence Aviation dumped harmful chemicals at the site over years, contaminating soil and groundwater. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation have been working for several years to undo the damage through the federal Superfund program, which cleans up such contaminations of hazardous materials, but it could still take two more decades to completely clean local groundwater.

Brookhaven’s land use plan recommended the special zoning district to limit potential commercial uses at the contaminated site in the future — for instance, some uses that would be permissible in light industry zoning elsewhere in town will not be permitted at Lawrence Aviation, like agriculture, churches, day cares, recreation halls or schools. It does not support retail uses, but does not rule out office uses like laboratories and other research space.

The new district includes two zones — at the property and at nearby residential sites — and seeks to “protect those who occupy the site,” according to Beth Reilly, a deputy town attorney.

In addition to restricting some uses and prohibiting residential development in the former industrial area, it provides incentives such as speedier environmental reviews and eased requirements for lot setbacks and sizes to promote alternative energy production there, particularly solar energy.

To further protect residents, no new homes constructed in the neighborhood area of the special district could have basements, due to the contamination to local soil and groundwater.

Reilly was quick to point out that this didn’t mean the town was moving backward —all existing basements could stay.

The basement ban goes hand in hand with legislation the town passed last year that requires all new homes built near contaminated properties like Lawrence Aviation to be tested for soil vapors before they can receive certificates of occupancy.

The Lawrence Aviation zoning district passed, following a public hearing, with an abstention from Supervisor Ed Romaine (R), who reiterated his opinion that the site should remain undeveloped. He also renewed his call for Suffolk County to add the property to its land bank or use it for open space so it could “heal itself.”

When Romaine first made that suggestion in the fall, he pointed to the $12 million lien the county had on the site, resulting from all the property taxes owed on the site. The EPA has another $25 million lien on the property due to the cost of the cleanup.

Councilmembers Valerie Cartright (D-Port Jefferson Station) and Dan Panico (R-Mastic) have supported the idea.

“I really think the county should consider this for an acquisition into their land bank,” Panico said Thursday.

The Suffolk County Land Bank Corporation, established in 2013, aims to rehabilitate contaminated properties, known as brownfields, to get them back on the county’s property tax roll. The county pays property taxes on abandoned parcels, which causes the tax liens on the properties — and thus their sale prices — to increase, but the land bank lets the county sell the properties for less than the taxes owed, making it easier to get them cleaned up and redeveloped.

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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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.

Workers clean up the section of Old Mill Creek behind Village Hall. Photo by Elana Glowatz

Old Mill Creek has been an unusual sight lately for those who are used to seeing the narrow Port Jefferson waterway choked with vegetation.

A contractor recently began working on the troubled creek, uprooting invasive trees and plants a few weeks ago and clearing the view to passersby. This week, workers were standing in the stretch of the stream behind Village Hall with an excavator at its bank. They are restoring the eastern half of the creek, which discharges into Port Jefferson Harbor.

Old Mill Creek has been polluted and dirty for a long time. Photo from Steve Velazquez
Old Mill Creek has been polluted and dirty for a long time. Photo from Steve Velazquez

Port Jefferson Village has a permit from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to install rock supports at the creek, replace invasive plants with freshwater species, remove built-up sediment that blocks water flow, install filters to improve water quality and repair a pipe known as a culvert that channels the creek under Barnum Avenue.

That culvert repair will alleviate some flooding issues downtown, because the pipe is largely blocked up and causes problems during high tide and storms when the creek swells.

A goal of the project is to improve water quality in the creek and, indirectly, in the harbor.

Last month the village hired Holbrook-based contractor G & M Earth Moving Inc. to perform the restoration work and will use a DEC grant to cover three-quarters of the cost.

Old Mill Creek starts near Longfellow Lane and Brook Road, passes the Caroline Avenue ball field and goes under Barnum. From there it goes past Village Hall and wraps around Schafer’s restaurant before running under West Broadway and into the harbor.

Over the years, invasive species, flooding and pollution have beaten up the creek. Hazardous chemicals that had been illegally dumped over many years at the former Lawrence Aviation Industries property, an aircraft-parts manufacturer in Port Jefferson Station, traveled down-gradient into the creek.

Beyond the current restoration project, the village has further plans for improving and protecting the waterway, including doing similar work on the half of it west of Barnum Avenue and reducing stormwater runoff in its entire 517-acre watershed area.

Geese hang out on the banks of Lake Ronkonkoma. Their waste pollutes the lake. Photo by Phil Corso

Long Island’s largest freshwater lake is not what it used to be, but North Shore lawmakers and educators are teaming up to bring it back.

Darcy Lonsdale and her students attending the Stony Brook University School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences arrived at the docks of the 243-acre Lake Ronkonkoma on Tuesday morning, equipped with various aquatic testing supplies to study marine life in the waters. Bill Pfeiffer, part of the Nesconset Fire Department’s water rescue team, helped guide the students as residents and government officials flanked the docks in talks of a Lake Ronkonkoma that once was.

Pfeiffer has been diving in and exploring around Lake Ronkonkoma for years, mapping out the bottom of the lake and chronicling the different kinds of debris on its floor, which he said includes anything from parts of old amusement park rides to pieces of docks.

Darcy Lonsdale speaks to students at Lake Ronkonkoma before they take samples. Photo by Phil Corso
Darcy Lonsdale speaks to students at Lake Ronkonkoma before they take samples. Photo by Phil Corso

“This lake needs a healthy amount of attention,” he said. “It has been appearing clearer, but [Superstorm] Sandy turned it into a brown mud hole again.”

The lake is home to various species, including largemouth bass and chain pickerel.

Members of the Lake Ronkonkoma Advisory Task Force hosted Pfeiffer and the students with hopes of gaining a deeper understanding of the waters and encouraging the four jurisdictions overseeing it — Brookhaven, Islip and Smithtown towns and Suffolk County — to form one united board to advocate for the lake.

Newly elected county Legislator Leslie Kennedy (R-Nesconset) said the goal was to compile data that will help secure grant money, channel stormwater runoff away from the lake and garner legislative support for the lake.

“Years ago, this was a resort. There were tons of beachfronts. There were cabins and cabanas,” she said. “This is something we all could be proud of. It could be a site where people recreate.”

Looking ahead, Kennedy said she hoped a united front could attract more foot traffic and fishing to the lake. She stood along the waters on Tuesday morning and said she was anxious to see the kinds of results the Stony Brook students help to find.

“I am dying to know what the pH levels are at the bottom of the lake,” she said.

Lawmakers and Lake Ronkonkoma advocates said one of the biggest hurdles in the way of cleaner waters rested in the population of geese gaggling around the area. As more geese make their way in and around the lake, the nitrogen in their waste pollutes the water. Volunteers with the Lake Ronkonkoma civic had to sweep the length of the dock Tuesday morning, as Pfeiffer prepared for the students, in order to rid it of geese excrement.

“To help the lake, relocating or terminating some of the geese might not be a bad idea,” Brookhaven Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) said.

The students could be funneling data to the different municipalities overseeing the lake by the end of the summer.

“You want a report that will spell out how to improve the clarity of this water,” Romaine said. “The students are welcome back anytime.”