The Western Bays stretch for 10 miles, from Rockaway Inlet in the west to Jones Inlet in the east. For decades, they’ve been in decline.
By U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standards, the Western Bays have an excessive amount of nitrogen. Carl Lobue, a marine scientist with the Nature Conservancy, explained that nitrogen has accelerated seaweed growth, which breaks apart in the tides and rots. As it does, he said, it robs the saltwater of dissolved oxygen and kills marine life.
Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, and other activists have said for years that the outfall pipe from the Bay Park plant into Reynolds Channel is the main cause of the high nitrogen levels in the bays. The Nassau County Department of Public Works is determining whether the 110-year-old aqueduct that runs underneath Sunrise Highway can transport treated sewage — which is mostly water and nitrogen — from the South Shore Water Reclamation Facility to the ocean outfall pipe at the Cedar Creek Water Pollution Control Plant on the Wantagh-Seaford border.
The Herald took a closer look at the sewage system history, the aqueduct plan and how the proposal would impact the bays.
The plants and the bays
The Bay Park and Cedar Creek plants handle 85 percent of the county’s sewage. Cedar Creek, situated in the back of the park on Merrick Road, opened in 1974 and handles 50 million gallons of effluent per day.
Cedar Creek serves Sewage Disposal District 3, which stretches from Freeport to the Suffolk County border and has a population of about 600,000. Domestic, commercial and industrial wastewater is treated through a screening chamber, mechanically cleaned bar screens and aerated grit removal.
In 2011, France’s Suez Environment signed a 20-year contract worth $1.2 billion to operate and maintain both wastewater treatment plants. Suez officials guaranteed that the county would save more than $230 million over the contract’s life.
Suez officials said they have been swiftly maintaining the system. At Cedar Creek, they have installed odor sensor detectors, screenings for effluent and eco-friendly repurposing projects for water and energy.
Hurricane Sandy ravaged the Bay Park plant with a nine-foot tidal surge, throwing it offline for two days and sending raw and partially treated sewage into nearby homes and streets. Four years ago, the State Department of Environmental Conservation hit the then-county-operated plant with 127 violations.
The Western Bays Coalition, an environmental watchdog group, demanded that county leaders seek outside help in rebuilding the plant. Since then, Suez has discontinued the use of outdoor generators to curtail noise and introduced new odor-reducing technologies, and the county is working on denitrification technologies.
“We’re happy to report great progress,” Esposito said last October. “The management of the plant is better, the effluent is cleaner, the odor complaints are down and community transparency is up.”
Esposito reiterated that the coalition’s long-term goal is to have the treated sewage piped all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. She said that scientists have determined that the bays are not just impaired by nitrogen, but that species are disappearing — and the outfall pipe for the Bay Park plant into Reynolds Channel was the reason.
Many parts of the Western Bays are now considered dead zones, according to Lobue. In 2005, Esposito noted, Town of Hempstead crews were plowing local beaches twice a day to clean up seaweed on the shoreline.
“It wasn’t just a nuisance,” she said, explaining that seaweed breaks down into toxic hydrogen sulfide, “it was a public health concern.”
Citizens Campaign for the Environment and Operation SPLASH — a nonprofit, volunteer organization committed to improving the quality of life of Long Island’s shores — began lobbying for funding to construct an ocean outfall pipe at Bay Park before Sandy hit in 2012. Activists went to Washington, Albany and Nassau County officials, but were unable to secure enough money to construct the pipe. Rob Weltner, president of Operation SPLASH, said that the project would cost $450 million at minimum. Some estimates put the price at $600 million, he noted.
Diverting treated effluent from Bay Park to the Cedar Creek outfall pipe by way of the Sunrise Highway aqueduct would cost $360 million, county officials said. The pipeline was constructed between 1890 and 1892, and enlarged in 1900 to bring fresh water from Long Island’s streams, ponds and lakes to New York City.
County Executive Ed Mangano announced the aqueduct plan last May. Using the pipeline would immediately eliminate 50 million gallons of effluent per day — or 18 billion or more a year — from the bays, according to Suez.
About 7,500 feet of the aqueduct have been inspected by Aecom USA Inc., under contract with the county DPW. The second phase of the $2.4 million study began on Easter in Lynbrook. Crews are documenting the condition of the steel, rivets, joints, connections, valve chambers and manholes. The study will also include the creation of a topographical survey of the manholes and reports all structural damages of the pipeline.
Ralph Spagnolo, of Wantagh, worked at Cedar Creek from its opening in 1974 until his retirement in 1998. He remains a member of the Oversight Committee, a group of citizens who meet at the plant four times a year to get updates about the facility and raise any concerns.
Spagnolo said that he was not optimistic about the aqueduct’s condition. He is also concerned, he said, because it runs underneath Sunrise Highway — the same area that an aquifer supplying much of the county’s water also lie.
In addition to his fears about the aqueduct leaking and contaminating the aquifer, Spagnolo is also concerned that, because the effluent will still be nitrogen-rich, it will pollute another body of water. “We are not going to pollute Bay Park,” he said. “We are going to pollute the ocean instead.”
Phil Franco, president of the Seaford Harbor Civic Association, said he was unsure whether he supported or opposed the aqueduct plan. He suggested another modification to the sewage system.
“The most logical thing to be done is to build a tertiary treatment [system,]” Franco explained. “This would remove substances, such as the nitrogen, from the effluent.”
If it is feasible, Weltner said, he believes that using the aqueduct is the most practical, immediate way to save the bays. In 2002, Operation SPLASH also lobbied the DEC to give this matter attention.
Weltner explained that less nitrogen in the bay water would help the coastal salt marshes rebound. “The salt marshes protect us from wave and storm damage — and the beautiful fish and wildlife out there will return,” he said. “It means we can open 10 miles of clamming, and some of that hasn’t been open in 40 years.
“Within the first year, we’ll see less seaweed growth and fewer hypoxic zones,” Weltner continued. “That also means the marine economy can rebound in the Western Bays.”
Mangano said that the initial inspection indicated that the aqueduct is in good physical condition and that the pipe has maintained its shape. Brian Nevin, a spokesman for Mangano, said that if the inspection determined that the aqueduct is usable, the county would hire a consulting engineering firm to help design new facilities to pump treated effluent from Bay Park to the Cedar Creek ocean outfall pipe. The county would need to build new pumping stations at Bay Park and Cedar Creek, as well as two underground pipes that would connect the aqueduct to each plant.
Completing the design of the new facilities and obtaining required environmental approvals could take a year or more, Nevin said. Construction could begin as early as the end of 2018 or as late as mid-2019, and is anticipated to take up to three years.
Julie Mansmann contributed to this story.