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Church’s water nitrate level corrected: Years of delay give way to success

It has taken two and a half years to correct the high concentration of nitrates in water at Shelter Island Presbyterian Church, but the project is finally complete and the corrected system is up and running.

The announcement came from Town Engineer Joe Finora at the June 2 Comprehensive Planning/Grants Committee meeting.

In late November 2018 the Island’s Senior Nutrition Program that provided lunch at the church’s Fellowship Hall and other community activities at the site had to stop operations that required use of water by order of the Suffolk County Department of Health Services. Signs went up in the building warning people against drinking water from faucets.

In addition to the nutrition program, Fellowship Hall long functioned as a community center for many activities, including providing space for the Shelter Island Early Learning Center Program and concerts.

According to numbers furnished by the county health department, water tested in the first quarter of 2018 exceeded the allowable 10 milligrams of nitrates per liter, testing at 10.3 mg. By the third quarter, nitrate levels were at 14.9 mg. and the number in the fourth quarter was 16.3 mg. Nitrates are called a “tier 1 contaminant,” meaning test results of elevated levels must be posted within 24 hours of the findings.

Ingesting water with nitrate levels above 10 mg. per liter is dangerous for infants 6 months old or younger. Infants who drink the water could become seriously ill and, if untreated, could die. Symptoms include shortness of breath and “blue baby syndrome,” according to the health department.

Boiling, freezing or filtering the water doesn’t alleviate the problem, and excessive boiling can make the nitrates more concentrated, health department officials said at the time.

Adults and children older than 6 months could drink the tap water, but pregnant women or people with specific health concerns were advised to consult their doctors.

The town engineer at the time, John Cronin, initially learned of the readings from Karin Bennett who managed the town’s nutrition program. He said at the time the high nitrate levels didn’t surprise him because a study conducted by a summer intern had shown nitrogen levels in water in the Center to be high.

Elevated nitrate levels in the area gave rise to a project still underway to improve drinking water by creating a septic system that could serve Town Hall and other area buildings, including Shelter Island School; the Community Center that houses the American Legion Post and the Recreation Department; Shelter Island Library; the Center Firehouse; and other town-owned buildings in the area.

The school has since opted to pull out of the group effort. After a study of options, school officials decided to install their own improved septic system. Installation is scheduled for this summer.

The rest of the project is still under study.

As for the situation at the church, Ms. Bennett said at the time the county health department wanted a compliance schedule for installing a nitrate treatment and disinfection system by end of November 2018.

There were several starts and stops on plans with some delays waiting for parts to arrive for the new system.

Now that the new system is functioning, the town’s nutrition program awaits approval from New York State to resume its lunch for seniors program since they couldn’t resume under COVID-19 pandemic restrictions.