Suffolk Closeup: Confronting a crisis

BARBARA ELLEN KOCH PHOTO | Saving our most precious natural resource continues to be a battle.
BARBARA ELLEN KOCH PHOTO | Saving our most precious natural resource continues to be a battle.


It’s become a dirty word on Shelter Island and all over Long Island.

Where there’s excessive amounts of nitrogen flowing into waterways, such as bays and creeks, it leads to toxic algal bloom and low-oxygen dead zones that kill off fish and other marine life. In areas that depend on underground water table as the sole source of potable water — such as Suffolk and Nassau counties — excessive nitrogen is a health danger.

What’s to be done with the nitrogen threat? In a word — regulation. Unfortunately, there are vested interests here and elsewhere that have fought strong regulation of nitrogen discharges over the years, notably housing developers, landscape companies and agricultural interests.

“We can talk until we’re blue in the face about nitrogen pollution and roll out plans but unless we are committed to strong regulatory actions that will have an impact, we will not see results,” said Kevin McAllister, founding president of the Sag Harbor-based environmental organization Defend H20.

“The threat to drinking water is even more pronounced on Shelter Island,” Mr. McAllister added. “Both quality and quantity are critical concerns for the community. Unfortunately, the legacy of conventional wastewater disposal systems has caught up with them.”

I’ve been doing journalism on Long Island water pollution for decades. A would-be turning point came in 1978 when Dr. Lee Koppelman and his Long Island Regional Planning Board issued its “208 Study.” With $5.2 million in federal funds, under Section 208 of the Water Pollution Control Act, the board studied the situation and made recommendations. It considered the effect of run-off, fertilizers, animal wastes, household and industrial chemicals, sewage, discharges from landfills and other sources of contamination.

In 1981, New York Times Long Island reporter Fran Cerra wrote about the effect of the 208 Study: “Nearly three years after a comprehensive study recommended immediate action to clean up the Island’s polluted bays and safeguard its drinking water, major portions of the bays are still closed to shellfishing, and known sources of toxic chemicals still threaten the drinking water.”

In 1983, the New York State Legislature enacted the Long Island Landfill Law ordering most landfills to be closed by 1990. Suffolk County health authorities imposed new prohibitions on the dumping of toxic material onto the ground, from where it migrates down to the water table. The understanding grew that we on Long Island live on top of our reservoir and it must be protected.

But what had been a water situation became a water crisis. In the 1980s, the Great South Bay, for many years the source of 60 percent of America’s hard clams, underwent rapid deterioration, its clam fishery destroyed. The famed Peconic Bay scallop was all but overcome by brown tide. Portions of the underground water table became contaminated.

In response there was the development of advanced treatment systems for homes to remove nearly all of nitrogen from wastewater. But Suffolk health authorities were then, and continue to be, slow in approving and requiring them.

Long Island’s regional planning body and the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation joined together recently in creating a “Long Island Nitrogen Action Plan.” There were public hearings in January on the plan, packed with concerned people. In February, Governor Andrew Cuomo pledged $6 million to study the Long Island aquifer system.

Meanwhile, with the nitrogen problem used as excuse, there have been calls for widespread construction of sewers in Suffolk, even though, as Mr. McAllister has noted, sewers would promote a huge increase in population, negating any benefit.
“Sewers can lead to over-development, further degrading local water quality,” he said. “We must be honest. The drive for sewers is motivated by economic growth, not water restoration.”

Needed is “the establishment of strict wastewater discharge standards in conjunction with controls on development,” he added.

As for the lack of firm action by Suffolk County, Mr. McAllister has been going from town to town in Suffolk urging officials to adopt local laws. “If Suffolk County is not going to lead, it needs to move aside so the towns can determine the destiny of their local waters,” he said. “They have the power to do that. We need action.”

We’re not alone. To our south, for example, the Chesapeake Bay has been similarly hit. As the Chesapeake Bay Foundation states on its website, nitrogen is “essential for the growth of all living organisms” in the bay but in “excessive” levels it is a cause of destruction.