Bergen Point Waste Water Treatment Plant, Babylon

Long Island’s South Shore Wastewater Infrastructure Problem

Carl LoBue’s posts on the Save The Great South Bay Facebook page always get me thinking, and googling. And this one is no exception: Carl LoBue, on the relationship between the Bay Park Sewage Treatment Plant and Point Lookout seaweed:

Although the configuration of the beach and wind play a role in where and when excessive amounts of see lettuce (ulva) washes up on Long Beach Island, the excessive growth of this macro algae is fueled by the nutrients in sewage. 94% of the nutrients are coming from the combination of the Bay Park STP and the long beach STP which both discharge into Reynolds Channel. The sewage treatment plants have been there for a long time and so the problem has existed for so long that (decades) that people have come to believe this is natural….but its not. when it washes up on bathing beaches 3 feet deep it makes the news and is a problem. In fact in this news 12 report the town says pays to clean it up off the beaches daily – that comes with a cost – not to mention people (like me) have stopped going to those beaches because they don’t like swimming in the weeds which also attract bugs. On the bay side its even worse because it rots and stinks and creates a hydrogen sulfide gas that is pretty noxious, particularly this time of year.
So – next time the wind, tides, and jetty are blamed for the excessive stinky seaweed on the beach at Pont Lookout – Please remind them that what fuels the growth of these weeds is sewage and its time to clean up our act and our waterways – which is good for people, wildlife, the economy – and if done right will help make sure the streets don’t flood with raw sewage in the next big storm.

Carl is the senior marine scientist with the Nature Conservancy, so it’s no surprise that his comments are full of eye opening facts. His post evoked my recollection that for many years, a sand cleaning machine with a giant harrow has been used to remove the excess accumulation of seaweed from my local Islip town beach in order to clean the sand for beachgoers. I thought that was normal, but then maybe it’s the new normal. Also, don’t miss Carl’s response to a question further down the thread.
By happenstance, I was out at Point Lookout Sunday, fishing the Reynolds Channel from a kayak.
One of the other kayak fishermen (I was there with a group) observed how much less clear the water is than in the eastern bays. He said: “It’s only two feet deep and I can’t see the bottom.” Given that some of our waters, take the Great South Bay adjacent to the New Inlet for example, are nearly gin clearof late, that’s not optimal at all.

This shot, taken by SCERP on July 10th, shows in dramatic fashion just how The New Inlet is flushing the eastern part of the Great South Bay
This shot, taken by SCERP on July 10th, shows in dramatic fashion just how The New Inlet is flushing the eastern part of the Great South Bay

Imagine what that photo would look like without the New Inlet. Maybe we need more inlets? But I digress. Many years of scientific study has demonstrated that the water quality problem in the Western Bays is the effect of excess nitrogen and other contaminants: and as Carl succinctly related, the Bay Park Sewage Treatment plant and the Long Beach Sewage Treatment Plant contribute nearly ALL of the nitrogen to those Western Bays. These two waste water plants, currently limping along after being inundated by Superstorm Sandy, here shown at her roar, are clearly a big problem.

Sandy’s surging waves

Moving east. In Suffolk County, the Bergen Point sewage plant in Babylon is aging and probably leaking secondarily treated waste water into the Great South Bay.

Western Great South Bay.  Bergen Point is center left of photo.
Western Great South Bay. Bergen Point is center left of photo.

The outflow pipe – a 14,000 feet long pipe that runs under the Great South Bay to Fire Island and then another 17,000 feet out into the Atlantic, is in need of repair and expansion.

Bergen Point Waste Water Treatment Plant, Babylon
Bergen Point Waste Water Treatment Plant, Babylon

One thing’s for sure, even if the responsible governments repair and harden Bay Park (and Long Beach, also mostly destroyed by Sandy), and the other vulnerable sewage treatment plants with FEMA money, they haven’t solved our baywater pollution problem. This is because the plants are antiquated. The problem can accurately be described as one of inadequate regional wastewater infrastructure.
None of Long Island’s big South Shore wastewater treatment plants have the latest technology: they don’t do tertiary treatment, they do secondary treatment only, and that means that a lot of bad stuff isn’t removed from the water before it’s discharged. Three phases of sewage treatment are, I assure you, better than two. The Bay Park plant discharges it’s secondarily treated sewage water into the bays and not the ocean as would be best, because that’s the way it was built. This sort of design deficiency is a typical problem with the way that really big capital projects are done, ie, with bond funding.
About bonding. When something like a sewage treatment plant is proposed – unless it’s being built with Federal money – it almost always gets built with money from the issuance of a bond. There’s usually no other way for a local or State government to fund such a big expense since they can’t deficit spend. That bond has to be approved by voters. Those voters can be farsighted, intelligent and wise folks who understand the need for a huge government expenditure for their own well being, or they can be cheapskates: it depends on a lot of things, and often comes down to the prevailing political winds.
A proposed bond issue is a good deal for the affected community. A bond allows a needed project to be built all at once, and the payments to be spread out over the proposed life of the asset. In the absence of ready cash, it’s considered the optimal way to fund big capital projects. The logic goes like this: it’s not fair to make ‘today’ people pay the entire cost for something that will benefit people in thirty, forty or more years, and a bond spreads the payments out to tax more of the people who will benefit. From a political standpoint it’s a no-brainer of a decision: tax the current voters less by taxing the future voters.
The size and scope of a bond is a difficult matter. In a controversy that’s common on military procurements: do we build the asset with all of the latest (most expensive) bells and whistles, or do we build it ‘good enough’? And what exactly does good enough mean? For municipal projects such as waste water treatment plants, it usually means following existing government standards that reflect industry best-practices. Generally, capital projects don’t get the gold plated absolutely best features, but do get what is needed. They get built ‘good enough’ by the standards of the time. But in an emergency, like a war or a natural disaster, (you can see where I’m going with this) the political will to really produce the best results often materializes.
As things stand, much of the money to fix and harden our aging fleet of waste water plants (and much of the other broken stuff) is coming from the Federal Government through the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Because of this federal assistance, call it an insurance payout if you like, we have an opportunity to do better: much better. What we can do, with a lot less pain than if Sandy hadn’t blown everything apart, is combine local bonding with federal dollars to get a modern waste water treatment system for the South Shore. A terrible storm may have proven to be an historic opportunity.
It’s going to be an uphill fight, but what’s needed is obvious: the modernization of existing waste water treatment plants across Long Island; to tertiary treatment and to ocean outflow; and the completion of the long-stalled Suffolk County Sewer system. It’s manifestly in everyone’s best interest. If we do this right, future Long Islanders, like our children for example, can have clean bay waters. Right now they don’t, and it’s not getting better without action.
Nassau County’s Supervisor, to his credit, is trying to do just that, though his bond proposal has hit some heavy weather because of it’s size. This illustrates the our ‘golden moment’ to finally do something about the vexing problems with our sewer systems may be drifting away like smoke in a breeze. I’ve heard no word on Suffolk County’s plans to address this issue yet, beyond the seemingly endless studying of the problem. But Nassau, Suffolk and the State of New York better get cracking because the opportunity is here, and it is now. The bays are threatened by existing waste water flows, and it’s only going to get worse in the future because of another Island-wide issue: a burgeoning population. Virtually ALL of the new residential housing being proposed for the South Shore is high density housing: translation – apartment complexes. High density residential development will put additional unplanned for strain on existing Long Island infrastructure – including the sewer systems, which are demonstrably unready for the crowds.