LI's environmental concerns: Where do we go from here?

A worker at the Town of Brookhaven's Recycling A worker at the Town of Brookhaven's Recycling facility walks past a large concrete bin of collected glass and plastic. (June 17, 2010) Photo Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

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Looking at six of Long Island's environmental concerns, where they stand, and how to solve them.

Clean drinking water

PROBLEM:
Long Island’s water comes from underground aquifers. Groundwater is vulnerable to gasoline and chemical spills, some dating back to the Cold War. Septic systems and fertilizer have also led to high nitrogen levels in parts of Suffolk.

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STATUS:
Groundwater is better protected now because of chemical disposal laws and restrictions on development in the Pine Barrens. Water utilities test for contamination and spend millions to clean water. But trace amounts of pharmaceuticals are raising questions about human health effects.

SOLUTIONS:
Nassau and Suffolk have banned fertilizer use during cold months when nitrogen is more likely to pollute groundwater. Some want more sewers in Suffolk and think the county should update its sanitary code to address pollution from cesspools at older homes. The Suffolk County Water Authority is working with federal officials to develop new standards for pharmaceuticals detection.


Air pollution

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PROBLEM:
Local air quality has improved, but smog and soot levels still exceed health standards. Some pollution travels here from power plants in the Midwest. State data show from 2002 local cars and trucks produce much of the smog-causing emissions.

STATUS:
Future improvements largely depend on limiting car and truck traffic or switching to low-emission vehicles. Tighter federal standards for smog are coming down the pike. Regulators say that Long Island — which is not now in compliance — will struggle to reach the new limit.

SOLUTIONS:
Public transit aside, some see hope in plug-in electric hybrids. Regulators hope new fuel efficiency rules and higher emissions standards for construction vehicles and ships will yield more improvements. Others want to shift more road traffic to bus and rail lines.


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Preserving open space

PROBLEM:
Long Island will probably run out of available land before 2050. Advocates say open space and farms protect drinking water and attract tourists. Development can pose threats to rare plants, birds and animals.

STATUS:
An estimated 60,000 acres have been preserved so far. But the less land there is, the more it costs. Some worry that small parcels may create islands that isolate animals and plants and increase the risk of extinction.

SOLUTIONS:
Public opinion supports more purchases. Some say development should be directed away from open land and toward old commercial and industrial sites. Advocates say governments should buy land near other open space to form greenbelts.


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Overfishing/Coastal pollution

PROBLEM:
Sewage, wetlands loss and nitrogen-laden runoff from developed areas have hurt water quality in bays and estuaries. Overfishing and poor water quality have led to declines in clams, lobsters and fish that sustained generations of Long Islanders.

STATUS:
Efforts to revive clams in the Great South Bay have yet to succeed. Nitrogen pollution feeds blooms of harmful algae on the South and North shores. Strict limits on the harvest of summer flounder and other fish have set fishermen against regulators.

SOLUTIONS:
Communities are trying new ways to filter pollutants before storm water reaches bays. Striped bass and other fish once in decline have come back. But fishermen have clashed with fisheries managers over catch shares and other harvest control measures intended to make fishing more sustainable.


Climate change

PROBLEM:
Most federal and state environmental officials agree with a large body of scientists who say the Earth is warming. Human use of fossil fuels is thought to bear much of the blame. Among the biggest concerns for coastal Long Island: increased flooding as a result of rising oceans.

STATUS:
State officials warn that communities need to plan for sea level rise and other expected changes, such as increased risk of mosquito-borne disease. New York is part of a regional trading scheme to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.

SOLUTIONS:
Local renewable energy projects are in the works, including a large solar project planned at Brookhaven National Lab and a wind farm to be sited off New Jersey. Congress is considering bills to control industrial carbon emissions, but passage is uncertain.


 

Garbage

PROBLEM:
Long Island burns much of its garbage at waste-to-energy incinerators. The rest goes to out-of-state landfills because local municipal dumps were shut down to protect groundwater. Local recycling rates have stagnated over the past decade.

STATUS:
Officials worry dependence on off-Island disposal could create a crisis if landfills close or raise prices. Illegal dumping of trash and construction debris in local fields and woods remains a problem. The economic downturn has delayed plans to expand local incinerator capacity.

SOLUTIONS:
The state wants communities to reduce the amount of trash thrown away or burned. Expanded compost programs would recycle food and yard waste. Some local solid waste managers are skeptical. Others want to ship more garbage out by rail to reduce local traffic.
 

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