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Suffolk Closeup
It’s time for tough discharge standards, not widespread sewering, to combat L.I. nitrogen pollution crisis

Nitrogen: It’s become a dirty word on Long Island — and other coastal areas.

Where there is excessive amounts of nitrogen flowing into waterways, such as bays and creeks, it leads to brown tides and red tides and other toxic algal blooms, and low-oxygen dead zones that kill off fish and other marine life. In areas 2015_1024_suffolk_closeup_grossmanthat depend on their underground water table as their sole source of potable water — such as Suffolk and Nassau counties — excessive nitrogen is a health danger.

Regulation.

That’s what must be done to deal with the nitrogen threat. And it needs to be regulation that is tough. Unfortunately, there are vested interests here and elsewhere that have long fought strong regulation of nitrogen discharges — 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,” says Kevin McAllister, a Center Moriches native and founding president of the Sag Harbor-based organization Defend H20.

I’ve been doing journalism on the Long Island water pollution situation 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.

As New York Times Long Island reporter Fran Cerra wrote about the effect of the “208 Study” in 1981: “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.”

There was some action and some better regulation.

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 would migrate down to the water table underfoot. 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 — bays that had been marine treasures for the region and for the nation were struck. 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, initially in 1985, by brown tide. Portions of the underground water table became contaminated and there was a foolhardy push to draw from its lowest level, the Lloyd Aquifer.

New, too, was the development of “advanced treatment systems” for individual and groups of homes to remove nearly all of nitrogen from wastewater — but Suffolk health authorities were and continue to be slow in approving and requiring them. Moreover, nitrogen was proven by extensive scientific research to be the key problem here and elsewhere.

And Long Island’s regional planning body and the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation joined together in recent times in creating a Long Island Nitrogen Action Plan and there were public hearings in January on it. They were 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 sewering in Suffolk, even though, as McAllister has noted, sewers would allow a huge increase in population negating any benefit.

“Sewers can lead to over-development further degrading local water quality. We must be honest,” he says. “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.” As for the lack of firm action by Suffolk County, McAllister has been going from Suffolk town to town urging town 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. 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.

Karl Grossman is a veteran investigative reporter and columnist, the winner of numerous awards for his work and a member of the L.I. Journalism Hall of Fame. He is a professor of journalism at SUNY/College at Old Westbury and the author of six books. Grossman and his wife Janet live in Sag Harbor.

Suffolk Closeup is a syndicated opinion column on issues of concern to Suffolk County residents.

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Denise Civiletti

Denise is a veteran local reporter and editor, an attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including a “writer of the year” award from the N.Y. Press Association in 2015. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.