By Karl Grossman
“We figured it out!” exclaimed a happy scientist, Dr. Chris Gobler, at the door of the Duke Lecture Hall on the Stony Brook Southampton campus earlier this month.
In a few minutes, a symposium was to begin at which he would announce the key reason why Long Island’s bays and other waterways have been undergoing terrible environmental problems in recent decades.
The word: nitrogen.
The source: the cesspools to which the toilets of most Long Islanders are connected. From the cesspools, nitrogen-laden wastewater migrates into our bays and waterways.
What Dr. Gobler, associate professor at Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, had come upon was not a surprise. Nitrogen has been seen as a culprit for problems in our estuaries for years. Indeed, last year the Peconic Baykeeper issued a report, “Nutrient Pollution: A Plague to Our Waters.”
But Dr. Gobler and his team had amassed a conclusive body of research presented at the April 1 symposium. Importantly, he was not only identifying the leading problem but offering solutions. “We now know the problem and the solutions,” he said.
The solutions included reducing “housing density” in areas with a potential impact on waterways and a recommendation for the use of denitrification systems now available and able to dramatically cut back nitrogen discharges. “They’re just as effective as sewage treatment,” said Dr. Gobler. Equal to the solid science by Dr. Gobler is this suggestion, because Suffolk County government through the years has been stuck in believing there are two basic ways that human waste can be dealt with: cesspools or sewers.
Heavy construction interests on Long Island have long promoted sewers—providing them with a lot of work. They and politicians pushed for what was the biggest sewage project in Suffolk so far: the Southwest Sewer District in Babylon and Islip Towns. Some $1 billion (in 1970’s-80’s dollars) was spent on this scandal-ridden project.
Meanwhile, there’s a drive for more sewers in Suffolk. This is despite the fact that sewage treatment plants can be major sources of nitrogen.
As the U.S. Geological Survey, in a 2007 report, “Nitrogen Loading in Jamaica Bay,” concluded: “Treated wastewater is the largest contributor of nitrogen loading to Jamaica Bay.” The sources of this nitrogen are sewage treatment plants operated by New York City and Nassau County, says the report.
The research by Dr. Gobler focuses on the south shore bays of Suffolk: Great South Bay, Moriches Bay and Shinnecock Bay. “Nitrogen is hijacking our south shore bays,” said Dr. Gobler. As a result, all have now been designated by the state as “impaired” water bodies.
He presented data showing huge increases in nitrogen going into these bays in recent decades. “It’s getting crowded—Suffolk County,” he said. The results have been “harmful algal blooms” and red tide including one type that “makes shellfish toxic.”
“The answers are right in front of us,” he said. “How closely do you want houses put together?” And he recommended the use of the new denitrification systems.
Peconic Baykeeper Kevin McAllister was at the event and pleased with the presentation. “It is acknowledgement of what we have found,” he said. He was thrilled with Dr. Gobler’s suggestion on denitrification systems. That’s something Mr. McAllister has emphatically urged—to resistance, he complains, of county authorities.
“We have to move to denitrification systems,” said Mr. McAllister. He said the Nitrex system, developed by the University of Waterloo in Canada and now used in several nearby states—“the Ferrari of denitrifcation systems”—is especially effective. Mr. McAllister said that installation of denitrication systems should be made necessary for new construction and, when a house is sold, a “retrofit” of the existing cesspool system with a denitrification system should be required.
Suffolk County has contracted with the H2M engineering firm of Melville to look at denitrification systems. What kind of job will it do? H2M was a major consultant on the Southwest Sewer District.