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Source: Long Island Business News

Northport falling behind on resolving red tide


Posted: May 5, 2011
Originally Published: May 5, 2011

Image of CCE's Adrienne Esposito.

CCE's Adrienne Esposito

The Village of Northport is treading turbulent waters, as red tide threatens the health of the harbor and a deadline to implement state-mandated upgrades to its sewage treatment plant looms on the horizon.

A Long Island Sound Study, conducted in the 1990s, set three benchmark dates for facilities to come into compliance - 2004, 2009 and 2014. While Northport’s sewage treatment plant is in compliance with 2009’s standards, facility upgrades costing $9 million are required to meet the 2014 standard of cutting nitrogen levels in the Sound by 50 percent.

Considering the upgrades take roughly two years to implement, environmentalists say the village is getting dangerously close to missing the deadline. Northport has until May 13 to apply for funding through the New York State Environmental Facilities Corp. this year.

Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Farmingdale-based Citizens Campaign for the Environment and co-chair of the Northport Harbor Water Quality Protection Committee, said the village is dragging its feet.

“[Village officials] told us they are ‘hoping to apply’ for financing for the project,” Esposito said. “They wanted us to know that didn’t necessarily mean they would accept the money, though. That made us angry. Northport Harbor is dying and taking Centerport and Huntington harbors with it.”

For the past four years, the Village of Northport has been the epicenter of the red tide phenomenon on Long Island. Northport Harbor’s toxin levels are the highest recorded locally, due to annual algal blooms. High amounts of nitrogen have been found in the harbor with extremely high concentrations around outflow pipes from the village’s sewage treatment plant. Toxins from algae that feed on nitrogen have been shown to poison shellfish, sickening those who consume the affected fish in large amounts.

The issue of upgrading the facility comes down to funding. Northport has laid out a two-phase approach to upgrade its sewage treatment plant that would in total cost about $9 million. The village received roughly $1.4 million in state grants to cover over 70 percent of the cost of the first phase in 2010 - funding it has not used.

But for a village with a total annual budget of just over $11 million, financing the rest of that $9 million could mean serious tax hikes for Northport’s 7,600 residents, which is why village officials have been reluctant to undertake the remediation measures.

“An increase in our budget of $80,000 represents a 1 percent increase on the property tax bills of our residents,” said Northport Village Trustee Tom Kehoe, who also serves as the village’s commissioner of sanitation. “We would need to raise taxes by 11.5 percent to pay for these nitrogen remediation measures. We’re not going to bankrupt the village to fix what some think the problem is.”

Kehoe said the environmentalists’ focus on the sewage treatment plant is ignoring the real cause of the high nitrogen levels: cesspools and septic systems.

“Eighty-five percent of homes in the area go to cesspools,” Kehoe said. “That waste slowly leaches into the groundwater. Environmentalists don’t want to talk about it though. It’s easier to demonize the wastewater treatment plant. Even if we fix our wastewater treatment plant, the nitrogen problem will still be there.”

Chris Gobler, an associate professor at Stony Brook University’s School of Atmospheric and Marine Sciences, has been monitoring Northport’s watertroubles for about five years. While he agreed with Kehoe’s assessment, he said the most significant source of nitrogen in Northport was still unknown and upgrading the sewage treatment plant was the obvious step to lowering the nitrogen levels.

“The research by Gobler found red tide increased to lethal levels closer to the sewage outflow pipes,” Esposito said. “That’s science, not speculation. These decisions have to be based on science.”

But even if the sewage treatment plant isn’t the main cause of the increased nitrogen levels in Northport Harbor, the village is still legally required to upgrade the plant to meet the 2014 standards laid out by the Long Island Sound Study. If Northport isn’t in compliance with the new standards by 2014, the village could be fined as much as $37,500 per day by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, which environmentalists say could quickly add up to outpace the amount the village would have to spend to fix the sewage treatment plant.

“There’s been no progress over the last year and a half,” said Brian Whitehead, co-founder of the Huntington-based environmental group Save Our Harbors. “In that same time frame, the Town of Huntington has upgraded its facilities, along with several other municipalities.”

But Kehoe refuted Whitehead’s statement that no work had been done.

“We’ve been working on this for two months,” Kehoe said. “Our meetings with the DEC and the EFC have been very fruitful. Between now and the next 10 days we’ll have a modification on the [funding application], which will make the EFC happy. That will prequalify and green light us for funding.”

But Kehoe prefaced his statement by saying the village still has not decided whether it will indeed borrow the money, holding out hope that the village will receive additional grant funds from the state or federal governement.

In the meantime, the village has its own solution for reducing nitrogen levels in Northport Harbor: Reseed it with oysters.

“Oysters filter the water and remove nitrogen,” said Kehoe, who is also a co-owner of K&B Seafood, a wholesale seafood exporter based in East Northport. “We would only need a few million oysters to remove a significant volume of nitrogen.

It’s not a total panacea for the problem, but it would definitely help.”

Esposito agreed with the reseeding plan, saying steps were already being taken to do it and that efforts were ongoing, but like Kehoe, said reseeding alone wouldn’t solve the nitrogen problem.

“Reseeding should be one piece of the puzzle,” she said. “The real solution is upgrading the sewage treatment facility because otherwise, you’d be seeding shellfish you couldn’t harvest.”