Road repair after a burst sewage line in East Setauket poured an estimated 350,000 gallons of partially treated water into Setauket Harbor. Photo by George Hoffman

By Mallie Jane Kim

A river of water ran down the steep hill of Gnarled Hollow Road when Sotiria Everett arrived home from work June 4. The water appeared to be coming from under the street at the top of the slope, she said, adding she had to move cones and navigate around Suffolk County Water Authority trucks to reach her driveway.

“It was a disruption for us, obviously,” she said, noting the water to their house was off until about 10:30 p.m. that night. “The other concern is the damage it’s doing now in Setauket Harbor.”

A broken pipe spewed about 350,000 gallons of mostly treated wastewater over about 4.5 hours from the corner of Harbor Hill Road and Gnarled Hollow Road, according to a New York State sewage pollution alert. The water, which hadn’t yet gone through the final step of disinfection, followed surface streets to pour into Setauket Harbor, near Setauket Pond Park.

The place where the effluent entered the tidal harbor is the slowest to flush out and get diluted into the Long Island Sound because of its tucked-back location, according to George Hoffman of the Setauket Harbor Task Force.

The high-pressure pipe that burst originated from a sewer facility that processes wastewater from Stony Brook University and surrounding neighborhoods. It was mostly treated but lacked the final disinfection step, which takes place in Port Jefferson before the treated water is pumped out into Port Jefferson Harbor, a method water quality advocates say is outdated.

“If you were building it now, you wouldn’t be allowed to outfall sewage into the middle of the harbor,” Hoffman said. “We’ve learned so much since then about nitrogen in the harbor.”

Too much nitrogen in area waters leads to various issues, including dangerous bacteria and algae blooms.

But water quality isn’t the only concern with piping effluent into the harbor, according to County Legislator Steve Englebright, D-Setauket.

“There are two broad themes that emerge when we talk about groundwater on Long Island,” Englebright said. “One is quality of water, and the other is quantity of water—this is a little of both.”

Suffolk County draws water from a single-source aquifer, and if more water from that source is pumped into the harbors than is recharged by rain, the aquifer starts to drain.

Coincidentally, that same week, Suffolk County legislators met about modernizing area sewage lines, including the one in question that runs from Stony Brook University to Port Jefferson, according to Englebright.

The group heard a presentation about the possibility of using processed sewage to water athletic fields and other green spaces on Stony Brook University’s campus, as well as St. George’s Golf and Country Club next door. Englebright pointed to Riverhead’s Indian Island Golf Course, which has been watering with effluent since 2016, as a model for this method.

In addition to helping recharge the aquifer, this method obviates the need to buy nitrogen to fertilize the grass since the cleaned wastewater already contains it.

The county is currently working out its budget, according to Englebright, and though he said it’s unclear whether such updates will make it into the budget as a capital improvement this year, he’s glad it is at least on the table.

“The sewer break underlined the urgency and reinforced the timeliness of some of these conversations,” he said. “It is important for us to reassess.”

After the spill, the Suffolk County Department of Health Services warned residents to take precautions when recreating in Setauket or Port Jefferson harbors and closed several area beaches, including Little Bay, Grantland, Bayview, Indian Field, and Bayberry Cove. The county lifted its advisory June 10, after testing showed bacteria was within “acceptable limits” for all areas except Indian Field Beach, which remained closed.

Englebright said the high-pressure pipe may have burst at that point because it takes a turn to be nearly vertical, accommodating the steep grade of the street. “That’s where the pressure was concentrated,” he said.

Regardless of why it happened, area resident Everett hopes it won’t happen again. The bottom of the steep road, she said, is often flooded enough from rainy weather.

“The area is always prone to flooding, and you add that it’s not from Mother Nature, not from rain,” she said. “Any way that could be prevented would be ideal.”

Pixabay photo

By Brian Monahan

National Grid’s pending joint proposal before the state’s Public Service Commission could see monthly rates paid by the average residential customer increased by $28.52 for Long Island and $30.95 for New York City starting June 1 if approved. 

The lengthy process of proposing a rate increase, called a “rate case,” is organized akin to a court case, with administrative judges assigned to rule over the proceedings. The entire process, as well as the subsequent public feedback and negotiations with the state, can take over a year. The most recent joint proposal came after public comment on two separate proposals was heard for the New York City and Long Island region last year.

“National Grid is proud to play a vital role in achieving New York’s energy goals. The joint proposal submitted today includes critical improvements in infrastructure maintenance and upgrades that will enable us to continue providing reliable, affordable service while advancing the state’s energy priorities,” said Phil DeCicco, New York general counsel for National Grid April 9. “We are proud of the agreement we have reached with the Department of Public Service staff and other parties and look forward to receiving additional feedback from our stakeholders in the downstate region during the upcoming public review process.”

The current proposal has elicited varying reactions across the region, especially based on National Grid’s commitment to “transition to cleaner energy sources,” and investing in its existing gas mains to reduce emissions.

“It is always troubling to see rate increases but especially at a time when our families are having an issue putting food on their tables due to the faltering economy,” said state Sen. Mario Mattera (R-St. James), a member of the Energy and Telecommunications Committee. “The fact that these increases are being pushed in an effort to comply with the rushed elimination of fuel choice in New York State is disturbing to me.”

He added, “I have repeatedly stated that these haphazard and ill-conceived efforts will cost New Yorkers trillions, and we are already seeing the impact of putting the cart before the horse.”

Rate hikes are typically approved, albeit with some modifications. 

Photo by Andrew Martin from Pixabay

By Brian Monahan

At the Three Village Civic Association meeting on April 1, residents listened to a presentation regarding the legislative effort in Albany to take actionable steps at implementing the recommendation of the report of the Legislative Commission on the Future of the Long Island Power Authority to make LIPA a “true publicly owned” power authority. This would allow LIPA to run its own electric grid with considerable savings, according to the report.

Yet, the plan’s prospects appear dim in the backdrop of Albany as a late state budget muddies the waters of progress. The commission’s co-chair, Assemblyman Fred Thiele (D-Sag Harbor), has legislation in the Assembly, but no such bill exists in the Senate. 

Thiele was not available for comment prior to press time. 

“This is something that will be discussed outside and after the budget during the remainder of the legislative session,” said the deputy communications director for state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D) when asked if the majority leader would support putting forward a corresponding bill in the Senate. 

PSEG Long Island has reportedly been lobbying heavily in favor of retaining the current “service provider” model, which is uncommon in the United States. Additionally, PSEGLI points to metrics such as reliability, customer satisfaction, “most improved large utility since taking over the grid 10 years ago” and having the “lowest Department of Public Service complaint rate in New York state” as reasons the current model should stay. 

“The public-private partnership has worked for our customers on Long Island and in the Rockaways,” said Katy Tatzel, director of communications for PSEGLI. “Continuous improvement is one of PSEG Long Island’s core tenants. We have made significant improvement to the customer communications system and hardening of the system both before and after [Tropical Storm] Isaias [in 2020] and will continue to make improvements in the future.”

If LIPA were to be a fully public utility, it would have access to tax-exempt bonds and government grants, which it is argued would help lower prices paid by ratepayers. The utility does not have current access to these potential benefits. 

The financial analysis of the LIPA commission identifies between $48 million and $78 million in annual cost savings through “LIPA directly managing the operation of its electric system,” primarily by eliminating the PSEGLI management fee.

Opponents to this municipalization plan include the Long Island Association and the Empire Center. “The Long Island Association opposes a fully-municipal electric utility for our region as recommended by the Legislative Commission on the Future of LIPA, as it would adversely impact ratepayers and Long Island’s energy future,” LIA President & CEO Matt Cohen said in a statement. 

The Empire Center, a free-market-oriented think tank in Albany, notes that the unique situation of a public-private utility makes it an easy target when service goes awry but believes the commission “failed” to make its case for municipalization.

Where does this web lead ratepayers? “I’ve heard a number of different perspectives, but the one that always resonates is how unhappy people are with the current situation,” said Herb Mones of Stony Brook, expressing how few people have time to understand the present system.

Others see municipalization, which would reconfigure the governing body of LIPA, as a key way to getting local political bodies and organized labor represented on LIPA’s board. 

Questions of which model of governance may be adopted or any other plans for the future of municipalization are secondary to whether the legislation will pass. In the interim, ratepayers remain united in seeking the best service for the best rates possible, whatever arrangement this means. 

Photo courtesy PSEG Long Island

PSEG Long Island is working toward improving the reliability of the energy grid in Fort Salonga. The storm hardening work on this distribution circuit is part of many system improvements included in the “Power On” program.

“We are working hard to reduce the number of outages that occur during severe weather by strengthening the electric lines that directly power homes and businesses,” said Peggy Keane, PSEG Long Island’s vice president of construction and operations services. “This Power On infrastructure improvement project in Fort Salonga is part of PSEG Long Island’s ongoing, multiyear effort to continue to improve electric reliability for customers.”

The work began at the end of October and will last for approximately two months. PSEG Long Island’s licensed and approved contractors will work along distribution lines in Fort Salonga. To ensure traffic moves safely, PSEG Long Island will provide cones, flaggers and signage at the worksites, as needed. Local officials will also be notified in advance regarding any potential traffic concerns.

The storm-hardening improvements include:

Stronger poles: PSEG Long Island will replace some existing utility poles with stronger, more durable poles that are capable of withstanding winds up to 135 mph. The new poles will be approximately the same height as the existing poles, have a stronger base and will be placed no more than 5 feet from the current pole locations. PSEG Long Island will actively coordinate the removal of old poles with other utilities and municipalities.

Narrow profiles: To help wires deflect falling limbs instead of catching them, PSEG Long Island will be installing shorter cross arms atop some poles.

Stronger wire: Current wire will be replaced with more resilient and durable wire.

Upgrading: PSEG Long Island will upgrade or replace worn equipment as necessary.

Crews will be working on the following streets in Fort Salonga

• Fresh Pond Road between Fort Salonga Road and Claymore Road

• Breeze Hill Road between Fresh Pond Road and the intersection at Brookfield Road and Woodmere Drive

• Woodmere Drive between Brookfield Road and Fort Salonga Road 

PSEG Long Island prepares year round for extreme weather to maintain reliable service for its 1.2 million customers. Since 2014, the company has made investments in strengthening the electric infrastructure. Using funding from both FEMA and LIPA, PSEG Long Island has completed storm hardening and reliability work on more than 1,000 miles of distribution mainline circuits.

Power On, a program initiated in the spring of 2020, continues the work now that the FEMA program has concluded. Since the program’s launch, over 318 miles of the most vulnerable distribution mainline and branch line circuits on Long Island and in the Rockaways have been storm hardened with stronger poles, thicker wire and other modern equipment.

According to PSEG Long Island, these investments have strengthened the system so that fewer customers experience outages and, when they do occur, the duration is shorter, especially during extreme weather events. 

From the third quarter of 2022 through the third quarter of 2023, the sections of circuits that are storm hardened saw a 44% reduction in damage leading to outages compared to the rest of the distribution system.

For more project details, visit www.psegliny.com/inthecommunity/currentinitiatives/stormhardeningprojects.