A Water Quality Crisis On Long Island — Brown Tide, Beach Closings; Baykeeper Brings Law Suits Against New York State and The Federal Government

Today marks the seventh day — and hopefully last — day of the heat wave.   It sure would be nice if we Long Islanders could head down to the shore and take a dip in the water to cool off.   That’s part of what brought people to Long Island in the first place — our beaches.    Unfortunately so many people came to Long Island, and so little was done in the way of building sewage treatment infrastructure, that today all it takes is a good rain to trigger widespread beach closings and brown tide.

 

A Now Typical Picture of Brown Tide On Long Island
A Now Typical Picture of Brown Tide On Long Island

And so it is today on this mid-July weekend.   A thunderstorm yesterday brought temporary relief to in Brookhaven along The Long Island Sound, but that rain also washed  septic tank polluted ground water into the Sound,  closing (as CBS 880 reported this morning) or as Suffolk County’s web site had it, put them ‘under advisory’ due to ‘rainfall.’

Beaches In Brookhaven 'under advisory' after yesterday's thunderstorm;
Beaches In Brookhaven ‘under advisory’ after yesterday’s thunderstorm

Here’s the link to Suffolk County’s interactive map on beach closures and advisories.    As is typical, this bit of public information is not easy to find or use, and aside from the 880 AM report, this is latest large scale advisory/closure is not getting a lot of press.   Perhaps because this has become ‘the new normal.’   Every heavy rain closes beaches by the dozens.   Is this the Long Island we remember or want for our future?

With over 500,000 septic tanks on Long Island, we have a monumental water quality problem on our hands.   With a further 180 local small scale sewage treatment plants on Long Island, the problem gets worse.   With antiquated large scale treatment facilities further polluting our bays, chief among them The Bay Park Sewage Treatment Plant, crippled by Sandy and spewing millions upon millions of gallons of semi-treated sewage into the Western Bays, we have a disaster of monumental proportions on our hands, yet the issue is vastly under reported, and both the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and the EPA are failing to address the issue, refusing, it seems, to enforce the laws already on the books, specifically The Clean Water Act.

In September 2012, The Peconic Baykeeper, along with The Sound Keeper, two of the some 22 organizations in a nationwide Waterkeeper Alliance delivered a 200+ page report/petition to The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, citing 1380 large scale septic tanks located throughout Long Island — some at parks like Robert Moses, Belmont Lake, and Heckscher State Park, some at large apartment complexes, others on school campuses, that are not in compliance, that are dumping massive amounts of nitrogenous waste into our ground water and soon enough right into our bays. The result? Excess nitrogen triggering massive brown tides and red tides in all our bays — Shinnecock, Moriches, Quantuck, and The Great South Bay. Its why you can’t eat shellfish from Oyster Bay or Northport Bay. These algal blooms are why all the eel grass beds are gone, the clams and scallops are gone, the fish fast disappearing. It’s why we can’t go swimming on a hot day after a thunderstorm. The DEC responded with a half page letter six months later asking for more information .

In the face of such a lazy dismissal, The Peconic Baykeeper, with The Sound Keeper, has filed state and federal law suits demanding that the agencies in question — The DEC, the New York State Parks Department, and the EPA — enforce the law, starting with these 1380 facilities that fall under their jurisdiction.  Here is their press release announcing the lawsuits:  Leaky-Sewage-Regulations-Challenged-In-Court-Peconic-Baykeeper-Commences-Legal-Initiatives-To-Halt-Sewage-Pollution.pdf

Our waters cannot continue to sustain these environmental insults and remain viable. Then what? What is Long Island then, surrounded by dead waters? And further, what happens as all this septic tank seepage compromises our drinking water as well? What is Long Island without its recreational and natural charms, where you can’t even drink the water?

We have been building and building on Long Island for decade upon decade, but we have failed to build the necessary infrastructure for a sustainable Long Island. The developers made their profits, and all the pollution was flushed into the ground — a problem for another day. That day has arrived, however. We act now, or Long Island will not be a place you’d want to live. The problem now is immense — at $10,000 a septic tank, and with 500,000 septic tanks, that’s $5 billion dollars right there. But with hundreds of billions of dollars of real estate at stake, do we really have a choice?

So what can we do now? As your local, state, and federal representatives if they are aware of this issue, and ask them what they will be doing concretely to help make Long Island a sustainable place to live, where our children and their children will be clamming, fishing, boating, and swimming as we had. Make sure your friends and neighbors know too. At this stage, awareness is everything. Perhaps 5% of Long Islanders know there’s an issue now. IF 50% did, would our local, state, and federal officials have any choice but to act? Right now, they are free to ignore the scientists and the non-profits, the ones who see exactly where this is going but yet are not being heard.