When It Comes To Long Island’s Ground Water Pollution Problem, The Facts Are Now Speaking For Themselves

On Long Island, science is trumping politics. People from across the political spectrum have embraced the fact that Long Island urgently needs a plan to fix its waste water problems. The science is speaking for itself – 500,000 septic tanks, 360,000 in Suffolk.   The nitrogen seeping into the bay from these tanks,,into The Sound, into The Peconic Bay, into all our bays, is what is rapidly killing all these bodies of water. We all see the algal blooms and what its done to our waters, practically lifeless. Governor Cuomo, both our Senators, Schumer and Gillibrand, as well as County Executives Ed Mangano (Nassau) and Steven Bellone (Suffolk) and various state legislators and many local town officials are stepping up and are trying to put together the resources necessary to take on what County Execute Bellone termed “the biggest challenge to Suffolk County in generations.” I have spoken with a lot of legislative staff over this past year, parenthetically. These young men and women are very bright and committed.  They understand the science and what is at stake.

On a grassroots political level, over 100 local environmental groups have so far joined The Long Island Clean Water Partnership, which is dedicated to protecting all our waters, including our own drinking water, which we live above. If many of these organizations, like Save The Great South Bay, existed Pre-Sandy, it was Sandy that showed us how antiquated our infrastructure was on Long Island – the power grid, roads, rail, telecom, and most certainly waste water treatment.

It caused to ask how best to rebuild, given current science.  In the wake of Sandy, we had to try and rethink everything. How do we treat sewage and save our bays  since clearly in the wake of Sandy we had to rethink everything.   We are now addressing coastal resiliency.  How will we raise or rebuild or buy out homes in areas that are flood prone, what natural formations – marshes, eel grass beds, shellfish beds – help ameliorate a storm surge?, and so we asked if we were to rebuild, would we just put back in place an infrastructure that was 60 – 100 years old, or would we use the best science we had available to build in anticipation of what the future will bring us?

When framed that way, of course, we opt for future-proofing, we opt for sustainability. We rebuild a devastated sewage treatment plant, like Bay Park, but using 21st Century technologies, like tertiary treatment, and ultraviolet light to sanitize, as opposed to chlorine.   but then we look at the $730 million plant and see but half the solution. The treated effluent, if discharged into The Western Bay – a relatively stagnant body of water – could finish off its habitats. If the goal is to bring back the marshes, the fisheries and shellfish beds, the larger plan had to include an outfall pipe so that he highly treated effluent would dissipate three miles out into the ocean.

The solution to pollution is dilution they say, but no this is not a perfect solution. But until we come up with a cost effective way of removing the nitrogen as well – and believe me they are working on it! – this particular solution, the outflow pipe, has the support of all the major environmental groups on Long Island, and should be supported by anyone who lives on the south shore and wants future generations to swim, fish, boat, or clam on these waters as they had.

It was Ed Mangano who called for both the new plant and the outfall pipe. Governor Cuomo joined him in calling for the outfall pipe. All Long Islanders, of every political persuasion did, at least from my experience. The reason is, ‘it stands to science.’  Everyone is looking at the same science, the same data, and saying ‘our waters are dying at an exponential rate, and its directly related to the high levels of nitrogen in our groundwater, from our septic tanks and to some extent our fertilizers as well.’

Ever since the release of The Comprehensive Water Resources Management Plan, January 23, 2014, County Executive Steve Bellone has been on a mission to focus attention on the need to address our septic tank and water quality issues. He kicked off matters with a 9500 person conference call on water quality in.  He has since then called for funding and  for extending sewer districts. Most recently, Suffolk County won an IBM Smarter Cities Award, which will be used to study how best to address the septic tank issue in the county.   Bellone worked with Senator Gillibrand to advocate for this. We are thankful to both for working on behalf of Long Island.

We are genuinely trying to bring the best technologies and approaches to this enormous problem. We had the best in the world come to look at Bay Park. The 500,000 septic tanks is a big problem to figure out, but there’s some great science out there and people want to demo it here.  If Long Island isn’t the place to test the toilet of the future, I don’t know where.   A lot of places will be sewered.    Other places will need something else more practical.   So to that end, the most advanced green ecofriendly septic systems and toilets will be tested.

In all, it seems one of those rare places and times where we are aligned:   Let’s address what, again, County Executive Bellone called in his State of the County Address “The Biggest Crisis We’ve Faced In Generations.”   There’s a lot of technology that will be brought to bear to fix this.