Concerns over water quality in Long Beach after Sandy

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The Health Department inspects and regulates all public bathing beaches and pools in the county, and decides on any beach closings, according to its website. Department Spokeswoman Mary Ellen Laurain said that regularly scheduled testing of the ocean water — for bacteria and other organisms that can make people ill — would begin this week. She explained that testing is done at least twice a month through Labor Day, and that public beaches on bays or inlets are tested twice a week because they are more affected by stormwater runoff that can elevate bacteria levels.

“We do water testing at permanent beaches, which are those staffed with lifeguards for the purposes of bathing,” Laurain said. “Any other testing that is not done at permanent beaches, the [New York State Department of Environmental Conservation] and Environmental Protection Agency may do certain testing.”

EPA advised people to avoid waters around Bay Park plant after storm

The Environmental Protection Agency said that it conducted tests on Reynolds Channel after the storm. On Nov. 15, the agency collected water samples in the East Rockaway, Hog Island and Reynolds channels adjacent to Island Park and Long Beach. Eleven samples were taken, to determine concentrations of bacteria and dissolved oxygen that might have been affected by releases of raw or partially treated sewage from the storm-damaged Bay Park Sewage Treatment Plant.

According to results released by the agency, samples were analyzed for fecal coliform, a common group of bacteria associated with human waste, and dissolved oxygen. The fecal coliform levels were below the established limits for activities such as boating and fishing, but not swimming. Levels of dissolved oxygen, meanwhile, were above 5 milligrams per liter, which is generally accepted as being protective of estuarine life.

Still, EPA spokesman Elias Rodriguez said that the agency strongly advised people to avoid the waters in and around the Bay Park Sewage Treatment Plant. The plant’s failure during the storm prompted the county to initiate a three-part mitigation plan that included up to 30 days of temporary “triage” repairs and six to 12 months of permanent repairs to the facility.

Nassau County Legislator Denise Ford (R-Long Beach) called on the EPA in November to test the air and water in Long Beach and other areas, amid residents’ concerns about the impact that sewage-tinged floodwater and large piles of debris may have on their health in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

“It’s up to the federal government to follow through,” she said. “We know that there has to be some lingering effects for sure — it’s a justifiable concern.”

Mike Martino, a spokesman for the county Department of Public Works, told the Herald in February that the plant has been fully functioning since November and has met all DEC requirements since December.

Discharge from the Bay Park plant was an issue prior to the storm, and Ford said that the county is taking steps to address the plant’s aging infrastructure. Martino said that County Executive Ed Mangano had approved the use of $70 million to reverse years of neglect at the plant prior to the storm, and has requested $800 million in recovery and mitigation funds for the facility from the state and federal governments.

“We are definitely going to upgrade the sewage plants,” Ford said.

The DEC did not respond to a question about whether discharge from the plant is currently within limits permitted by environmental law.

Stony Brook University researchers are currently conducting a broader, long-term study of the Western Bays, and while preliminary findings indicate that sewage treatment plants are largely responsible for most of the pollutants in the bay, the study will not be completed until 2017.

“I think we won’t really know what the real impact all that raw sewage and partially treated sewage that was discharged during Sandy had for a while,” said Carl Lobue, a senior marine scientist for the Long Island chapter of the Nature Conservancy, adding that he believes the ocean water is most likely safe now. “We had nine coastal storms this winter, which meant high tides up and down the East Coast, and what they did was help flush the bay a little bit, and that helps dilute those pollutants.

“If the storm had happened in the summer,” Lobue continued, “we would have been in big trouble because bacteria grow very fast in warm water. But we know that the way the [Bay Park] plant has been running for the past 20 years has been bad. It’s still Band-Aided together, and they’re talking about a lot of money to get it working properly.”

Spill Bill one step forward

In June, state lawmakers passed the Sewage Pollution Right to Know Act, which will mandate immediate public notice when discharges of untreated or partially treated sewage enter local waterways.

State law currently requires notification of sewage discharge in local waters to be reported to the DEC. The new law, which takes effect on May 1, modifies the reporting requirement to include local health departments and media.

"That’s at least one step forward,” said Bochner, a proponent of the bill. “All we want to know is if it’s safe to go into the water or not. No one wants to take responsibility for making sure that we’re safe. The sewage treatment plant pipe is killing us — [sewage is] going to continue to end up everywhere, and they have to tell us if the water quality is safe.”

*An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated, according to the county, that more than a billion gallons of sewage was discharged after the storm.

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