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Source: Newsday

Nitrogen growing threat to LI waters


Posted: September 25, 2013
Originally Published: September 24, 2013

Aging sewage treatment plants, antiquated septic systems, storm runoff and fertilizer use are loading Long Island's waters with nitrogen, a pollutant that can threaten public health and the environment.

Nitrogen levels have been rising in Long Island's aquifers for three decades, said Stony Brook University marine scientist Christopher Gobler, citing a Suffolk County study. Nitrogen levels in the aquifer that supplies most of Long Island's drinking water increased by as much as 200 percent between 1987 and 2005, the study of the most recent data available found.

The amounts remain well below the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency limit for safety. But environmentalists and elected officials worry about the continued increase and its effect on the Island's groundwater and surface water, particularly in Suffolk County where most homes and businesses rely on individual septic systems.

Millions of pounds of nitrogen are generated on Long Island each year "and unfortunately most of that, as we all know, is not going to sewage treatment plants but is going to septic tanks" and eventually seeping into groundwater and surface water, Gobler said. "We do expect these numbers to rise."

Nitrogen forms when microorganisms break down in sewage, manures, decaying plants or fertilizers.

The element occurs naturally and is necessary for human health and plant growth. But when ingested in high levels, it can deprive bodies of oxygen in blood. In infants, excess nitrogen in water used for formula preparation can lead to "blue baby syndrome" where the lack of oxygen turns the skin blue. In adults, high nitrogen levels in severe cases can lead to brain damage.

Nitrogen pollution is one of the most widespread and challenging environmental problems in the country, according to the EPA. It affects 15,000 waterways, including 2.5 million acres of lakes and reservoirs, and 80,000 miles of rivers and streams, agency officials said.

"Addressing nutrient pollution is a top priority for EPA," said the agency's acting Assistant Administrator Nancy Stoner in Washington, D.C. The problem "threatens waters used for drinking, fishing, swimming and other recreational purposes," she said.

The pollutant threatens water in both Suffolk and Nassau, officials said. Leaks and spills from aging sewage treatment plants in Nassau and heavy reliance on septic systems in Suffolk contribute to the pollution.

Septic systems can leak

In Suffolk, 70 percent of the homes and businesses use septic systems and in Nassau 30 percent are on such systems. The remainder in both counties are attached to public sewers. Both systems, if not maintained or updated, can leak pollutants, experts and environmental advocates said.

"When you flush it down your toilet or put it in your sink it goes into the groundwater and then into our bays," said Adrienne Esposito, executive director of the Citizens Campaign for the Environment.

But Walter Dawydiak, acting director of environmental quality for the Suffolk County Department of Health Services, said nitrogen levels in Long Island's aquifers are still at 3 to 4.5 parts per million. That's well below the maximum 10 parts per million allowed under public health standards. He called the Suffolk levels a success story -- for now.

Fertilizer- or pesticide-laden runoff from lawns and farms also contribute to nitrogen pollution.

To combat the threats, environmentalists and governments have launched efforts to increase public awareness about Long Island's water, pass legislation to curb nitrogen levels and boost campaigns to build new sewage treatment plants.

The newly formed Long Island Clean Water Partnership, which includes the Citizens Campaign, Group for the East End, Long Island Pine Barrens Society and The Nature Conservancy, this month launched a $3 million, three-year advertising and education campaign about protecting Long Island's waters.

Assemb. Robert Sweeney (D-Lindenhurst), chairman of the Assembly Committee on Environmental Conservation, has sponsored several pieces of legislation intended to clean up Long Island's waters, including one to establish state groundwater standards limiting nitrogen levels.

Suffolk's water management plan, which is being completed, recommended in a draft released in 2011 that county residents reduce nitrogen levels, maintain groundwater supplies and minimize water contaminants.

Suffolk Legis. Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) said expanding the sewer system would considerably help combat the increasing nitrogen. But at a cost of $2.1 billion to hook up a mere 40,000 homes, that approach is too expensive, despite the urgency, she said.

"It's pretty clear that the largest or most consistent culprit we have is nitrogen, from a water quality perspective," Hahn said. "Our tourism, our quality of life, our economy is so reliant on the quality of those waterways and I think that while we face an extraordinarily difficult fiscal reality, the people of Suffolk County do not want us to continue to allow the degradation at the pace it has occurred."

Collaboration sought

Southampton Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst, a Democrat, is leading an effort to tap state funds to create a collaboration among area research institutions to find the best water quality control approaches for Long Island.

"It is not practical nor is it fundable to try to sewer hundreds of thousands of homes," she said.

Riverhead Town Supervisor Sean Walter, a Republican, supports the collaborative approach. "It's time for us to really put thinking caps on in looking to improve these systems," he said.

Throne-Holst in July submitted a proposal to the Long Island Regional Economic Development Council seeking a $2.7 million state grant to establish an incubator facility for Stony Brook University, Brookhaven National Laboratory, Cornell Cooperative Extension, and the Suffolk health department to find the best system to reduce nitrogen content in septic systems.

Adding to the concern about nitrogen contamination is that much of it ends up in Long Island's bays and waterways.

The EPA and state Department of Environmental Conservation have declared swaths of water on the South Shore and Long Island Sound "impaired," citing elevated levels of infectious microorganisms, reduced oxygen and increased nitrogen loading.

Excess nitrogen in surface water allows algae that feed on the element to grow unchecked, depleting the waters of oxygen and killing off marine life.

That worries environmentalists because polluted waters mean less fishing and recreational boating, closed beaches and fewer tourism-generated dollars in a region with an economy dependent on those industries.

Superstorm Sandy flooded the Bay Park and Long Beach sewage treatment plants in Nassau and sent thousands of gallons of raw or partially treated sewage into channels and bays.

Bay Park, which serves about 520,000 residents -- about 40 percent of the county's population -- shut down for two days after 9 feet of saltwater entered the facility during Sandy. It took 44 days to restore plant operations after the Oct. 29 storm.

County Executive Edward Mangano is seeking $722 million in borrowing for critical sewer system repairs, particularly for the electrical system at Bay Park.

Sewers hold promise

Environmentalists and elected officials still see sewers as part of the solution.

In Suffolk, a variety of new sewage treatment plants have recently been proposed or undertaken.

County officials this month broke ground on a $75 million sewer expansion in Hauppauge Industrial Park that consists of $41 million to upgrade the treatment plant and $34 million for sewer installation and pump stations. Northport Village was selected to receive a $3.1 million state grant and as much as $3.03 million in loans to upgrade its sewer plant.

"We have one source of drinking water and it's beneath our feet," Sweeney said. "And there is no Plan B if something goes wrong with that."