By Ellen Frankman
Peconic Baykeeper Kevin McAllister has watched the local waters degrade for over 30 years, and now, alongside his organization and with the help of the Soundkeeper, he is taking action.
On Thursday, July 18 the Peconic Baykeeper, a not-for-profit dedicated to the protection and improvement of the Peconic and South Shore estuaries, and the Soundkeeper, whose mission is to protect the Long Island Sound, filed a notice of intent to sue the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation for failing to regulate wastewater, which is now reaching surface water with calamitous effects. The suit will be filed under the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.
The DEC did not respond to a request for comment by the time of publication.
“In September of last year, we filed a petition, a couple of hundred page document, on the performance of over 1,300 sewage treatment facilities as well as large scale septic systems,” said McAllister.
McAllister says that the state of New York responded to the petition on April 1 with a half page letter suggesting that the Peconic Baykeeper provide more information in greater detail.
“It’s an embarrassment to the DEC,” said McAllister.
McAllister and the Peconic Baykeeper organization are requesting that certain State Pollution Discharge Elimination System (SPDES) modify permits for sewage treatment plants and septic systems responsible for nitrogen loading into groundwater and the ponds, rivers, creeks, harbors, bays and other estuaries and coastal waters on the East End.
According to the intent to file suit, “virtually all of Suffolk County’s coastal waters are not meeting state water quality standards and are not supporting their designated uses,” which include swimming, fishing and shellfish consumption.
“The sterilized term for polluted water is called impaired,” said McAllister. “There isn’t a water body around that isn’t impaired. The coves are impaired, Peconic Bay is impaired, the Long Island Sound is impaired, the entire end of the south shore of Long Island is impaired. Quite frankly enough excuses and indifference.”
A significant cause of the nitrogen loading is being attributed to five major parks including Robert Moses State Park, Hecksher State Park, Sunken Meadow State Park, Belmont Lake State Park and Wildwood State Park. The cesspools or septic tanks at each of these parks has the capacity to discharge more than 30,000 gallons daily of sanitary waste into the sandy soils below, amounting to over 246,000 gallons daily for the five parks combined.
“These are large scale park facilities that operate under conventional septic systems,” said McAllister. “We are talking parks where there are probably parking spaces for 1,000 cars or greater. The point I’m making is you can just imagine the number of toilet flushes every day in the park.”
The Stony Brook University Southampton campus is also being named for its irresponsible management of wastewater, as its current SPDES permits do not properly control nitrogen limits nor do they account for the overwhelming volume of wastewater that is being pumped into the ground.
Residential septic systems are also to blame, and coupled with runoff from lawn fertilizers, the nitrogen levels are adding up. It is estimated that 70 percent of nitrogen loading in Moriches Bay is due to wastewater.
Groundwater moves slowly, traveling just a couple of feet a day. But problems arise when this water from septic systems eventually meets surface waters. While the state has determined that the water that flows from your tap and flushes your toilets has a level of nitrogen that is 10 mg/L, the ecological standard for nitrogen is just .45 mg/L. The state and the county are essentially managing wastewater for drinking water standards, and doing little to nothing to see that ecological standards are met.
“It is taking decades for our development influences to actually start to reach the waters edge, and now it is here,” said McAllister.
And the effects are growing increasingly visible, as nitrogen-enriched wastewater enters already polluted coastal waters. Red and brown tides have emerged this year, marking the seventh consecutive year of brown tide in the Moriches-Quantuck-Shinnecock Bay system. Dr. Chris Gobler, of the Stony Brook University School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, estimated that the brown tide reached densities of more than 800,000 cells per milliliter in early June.
“Excessive nitrogen loading within the poorly flushed regions of our estuaries can have a series of adverse impacts on the animals living within these systems,” said Gobler. “These impacts include the degradation of critical habitats such as eelgrass and salt marshes, low dissolved oxygen levels, low pH, levels, and harmful algal blooms.”
The productivity of finfish and shellfish populations suffers as a consequence.
But, as highlighted in the notice of intent to sue, there are existing solutions to improving the treatment and disposal of wastewater, and subsequently the health of our surrounding surface waters. Effective denitrification systems exist, and are already being put into use throughout the country.
“It is inexcusable that they aren’t implementing state of the art or best available technologies for denitrification,” said McAllister, who added that commercially available denitrification systems regularly reduce nitrogen concentrations below 5 mg/L.
“It’s a huge problem and what will it cost us?” said McAllister. “I’m a realist and I understand cost implications and it will probably take us 10 to 20 years to fix the problem, but we’ve got to start today.”