Hours before superstorm Sandy smashed into Long Island, Northport Village officials were frantically securing their sewage treatment plant to make sure untreated waste water wouldn't get pumped into the abutting harbor.
The water was so high near the plant that several people were placed in the bucket of a loader and brought over during the storm. Officials secured the plant's influent tank by building a wall from plywood.
The makeshift wall prevented salt water from entering the tank, village administrator Gene Guido said, ultimately preventing about 300,000 gallons per day of untreated waste water from being dumped into the harbor and bay bordering Northport, Centerport, Asharoken and Eatons Neck.
And, as a result of Sandy's high waters, officials have modified designs for a $4 million plant upgrade already planned before the storm. For instance, plans initially called for raising the foundations 6 inches; now, they will be elevated 30 inches.
Northport's project, slated to start this spring, is one of 11 that has been or is being upgraded on Long Island.
For Northport, environmental experts and local officials say, this will help keep the harbor clean and potentially mitigate red tide there, a harmful algae bloom that has caused numerous shellfish closures in Northport Bay, Huntington Bay and surrounding waters since it was discovered in 2006.
"You want a clean harbor," said village trustee Damon McMullen. "It is what attracts people here . . . the water."
Village officials are now vetting the bids and plan to award one of the bids Friday. Northport must reduce its nitrogen emissions from the plant from 18.5 pounds per day to 10 by August 2014 -- a mandate being overseen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the state Department of Environmental Conservation. Village officials have asked for more time because of the plan's modifications.
This work will include two additions, housing denitrification and pH equipment. The plant is about 8,400 square feet. The two additions total about 2,150 square feet. The village has a loan, but also is hoping for a county grant. The first phase, completed in 2004, reduced nitrogen to its current levels.
Chris Gobler, professor of marine and atmospheric sciences at Stony Brook University, said "there has never been a better link between red tide and nitrogen."
Gobler, who has been studying red tide in Northport since 2006, said his work has shown if more nitrogen is added to the water, toxin levels increase.
Red tide contains an algal toxin that causes paralytic shellfish poisoning, a potentially fatal disease that affects the nervous system of people who have eaten shellfish.
He said it can also result in low dissolved oxygen levels and the loss of eel grass beds, a vital habitat that serves as a nursery ground and feeding area for many fish species.
He said the plant upgrades are an "important milestone" but there are other sources of nitrogen, like fertilizers, stormwater discharge, cesspools and septic systems.
"It is also important that we not just clap our hands and think we are all done . . . there are other sources and there are other challenges that need to be faced," he said.