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Source: Long Island Herald

Editorial: It's long past time for action at the Bay Park plant

Posted: February 6, 2013
Originally Published: January 31, 2013

The effort to rebuild our communities after Hurricane Sandy’s devastation has not been without a sense of urgency, especially when it comes to reconstructing homes and critical infrastructure “stronger, smarter and safer,” if we are to go by the mantra in Long Beach.

One of the most critical pieces of infrastructure that must be addressed is the Bay Park Sewage Treatment Plant in East Rockaway, an antiquated facility that is notorious for its mechanical failures, which result in the discharge of raw or partially treated sewage and other pollutants into our waterways, rendering them unfit for boaters and fishermen and fueling devastating algae growth. Though the discussion of how to rebuild the iconic Long Beach boardwalk is getting most of the attention these days, now is the time to focus on upgrading and modernizing the aging Bay Park plant.

The facility processes more than 40 percent of the county’s sewage and discharges an average of 58.5 million gallons of what is supposed to be treated effluent per day into Reynolds Channel, according to the New York- and Connecticut-based Citizens Campaign for the Environment.

It has been nearly three years since local environmentalist Scott Bochner fired up his camcorder and documented an alarmingly large brown plume moving across the channel, bringing attention to what we learned was a discharge of only partially treated sewage, in greater concentrations than allowed by environmental law.

The Bay Park plant needed new equipment even before Sandy. Though the county has spent millions of dollars on upgrades since Bochner’s videos were posted on YouTube, the storm made clear just how vulnerable the facility is. A nine-foot storm surge, and a subsequent fire, caused the entire plant to go offline, and sewage backed up onto streets and into homes and spread throughout the Western Bays. Pipes also broke in East Rockaway and Baldwin, flooding parts of those communities with sewage.

Though Nassau County declared a public health emergency, many residents who were without power or displaced were unaware that more than a billion gallons of raw or partially treated sewage had been discharged in the aftermath of the storm.

The county has created its own master plan for upgrading the facility, but the Citizens Campaign for the Environment recently floated its own 10-point plan that includes not only replacing aging or damaged equipment at Bay Park in order to meet state and federal water quality standards, but also creating a public oversight committee for the plant.

Results released last week from a Stony Brook University study, aimed at creating long-term solutions to reduce the levels of pollutants in the Western Bays and bolstering state and federal environmental standards for the plant, strongly suggest that it is responsible for most of the pollutants in the bays. But the state oversight and planning needed to dramatically reduce them may be more than a decade away. We cannot wait that long.

Of course, most observers agree that a total revamping of the facility would depend on much-needed federal funding, and County Executive Ed Mangano has requested $898 million in assistance from Washington to help redesign and rebuild it. But the county should also tap into $400 million that, according to County Legislator Dave Denenberg, was previously earmarked for upgrading its sewage treatment plants but remains unused.

We agree with the Citizens Campaign for the Environment’s assessment that Hurricane Sandy exposed the weaknesses of the Bay Park plant, while at the same time offering a unique opportunity to repair the failing infrastructure. Now is the time to cut through the red tape and finally fix an outdated facility that, because of its frequent breakdowns, constitutes a continuing public health hazard.