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Source: Merrick Life

Right to know public notification when sewage spills occur


Posted: December 15, 2011
Originally Published: October 29, 2011

Between 2003 and 2011 there were over 600 New York State permit discharge violations from local sewage treatment plants.

In August record rainfall – first on the 14th and then when Tropical Storm Irene hit on August 28 – impacted the health and safety of our waterways when problems occurred at the Cedar Creek and Bay Park sewage treatment plants.

Yet the public was not notified.

“There is currently no law requiring municipalities or the DEC to notify members of the public when a sewage overflow occurs,” said Adrienne Esposito, executive director for the Citizens Campaign for the Environment. “This is wrong. The public deserves to be notified.”

On August 14, “5,000 gallons of treated but not chlorinated sewage effluent from the final settling tanks and rain water spilled onto the grass and roadway at the Cedar Creek plant and then entered the storm drains that drain into Wantagh Creek,” said Bill Fonda, spokesperson for the state DEC.

On the same day, in nearby Baldwin, there was a raw sewage back-up into the homes and roadway on Barns Avenue in Baldwin. Manholes, which were bolted down, lifted several inches above the road, allowing sewage to flow down the road, onto lawns, in gardens and through basements. Ultimately, the sewage discharged into Parsonage Creek, a tributary into the South Shore Estuary Reserve.

“Days later those who were unaware of this release could be seen fishing and crabbing in Parsonage Creek,” said Ms. Esposito. “Many residents don’t know what’s going on and when the water is effected. Ignorance is not bliss; ignorance is dangerous. The law cultivates ignorance and as a result people are getting sick.”

Between 2003 and 2011 there were over 600 New York State permit discharge violations from local sewage treatment plants, according to SPLASH, an environmental watchdog group which monitors the health and safety of our waters along the South Shore.

At Bay Park in East Rockaway, there were seven violations in June for exceeding settleable solids, total suspended solids and turbidity standards. In March of 2010, over 3.5 million gallons of sewage overflowed, creating a brown plume. The public only learned about these spills after resident Scott Bockner videotaped the brown plume and put it up on YouTube.

The county must notify the DEC when there has been a sewage spill. It is required to notify the DEC’s Division of Water within 24 hours. If the sewage spill has the potential to impact shellfish harvesting areas the county is required to notify the DEC’s Bureau of Marine Resources within two hours of the spill.

Although beaches may be closed down due to spills, the county Board of Health will only make warnings “if the area is a lifeguarded body of water,” explained Scott Bockner, a member of Sludge Stoppers who has been monitoring the spills at Bay Park. “So are you telling me, we have to put a lifeguard to stand there all the time? And what about those jetskiing or boating or fishing?”
To address this problem, county Legislator David Denenberg wrote the Nassau County Right to Know of a Spill Bill, docket number 138-11, that would require the Nassau County Department of Health to alert the public, through the media, about a sewage spill that could effect waterway use and activities including swimming and diving, as well as commercial and recreational fishing.

“It was written to be like the mosquito spraying bill. We used the same language and we thought this is about our health, why not pass it?” said Mr. Bockner.

The bill was submitted to the county Legislature in April and was on the desk of Republican Presiding Officer Peter Schmitt until last week when the Republicans came up with their own notification system.

“It’s partisan politics,” said Ms. Esposito. “They have been sitting on this for months. We are going to the state to see if they will pass a similar bill.”

While the Democratic minority supports the bill, the Republican majority does not. Avi Fertig, representing Legislator Howard Kopel, doesn’t support the bill. Neither does Legislator Dennis Dunne. Legislator Denise Ford did not return our calls. The Republican majority has said the law is unnecessary and redundant.

Rob Weltner of SPLASH also supports the county legislation and helped to spearhead a letter-writing campaign to county legislators. “It’s a good bill. About 100 letters have been sent to various county legislators and to Peter Schmitt,” he said.

Then, late last week the Republicans unveiled their own plan for reporting spills.

Here’s how it works – residents may sign up to receive e-mails (www.nassaucountyny.gov/dpw) through the Nassau County website and will be notified within four hours of any reportable incident which results in a wastewater spill in any waterway near Bay Park Cedar Creek or Glen Cove.

The Nassau County Department of Health has also established a telephone hotline, 227-9700, for residents to call to determine if any event has caused the DOH to close local beaches.

This bill [Spill Bill] is “superfluous and unnecessary,” said Christina Brennan, spokesperson for Legislator Schmitt. “The Department of Public Works will e-mail anyone who wants to know about a spill.”

This newspaper asked: What will happen if the county decides to privatize the plants? Can the public trust its welfare to a private concern, especially if it will cost the money?

“It’s like the fox watching the hen house,” said Mr. Bockner.

“There is no reason not to pass this bill,” said Legislator Denenberg, “except that I’m the author of it. I still think you need to inform the media, just like you do when there is a mosquito spraying in the county.”

“Things are going to happen,” said Mr. Bockner, referring to spills and breakdown of equipment at the plants. “It’s not about blame. Machines break down; there will be damage. Just tell us so we know to stay out of the water.”