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Call for nitrogen removal at Nassau sewage plant

Shown are digestor tanks at the Bay Park

Shown are digestor tanks at the Bay Park Sewage Treatment Plant in East Rockaway. At right is a 60-foot-high gas sphere on March 9, 2011. Credit: Kevin P. Coughlin

Federal authorities are pushing for nitrogen removal to be a priority as Nassau County plans for an ocean outfall pipe that would transport treated effluent from Bay Park Sewage Treatment plant out into the ocean.

The facility, which serves about 40 percent of Nassau County, was knocked offline during superstorm Sandy. The state has already secured $810 million of federal funding for improvements to upgrade the facility and prepare it to withstand a 500-year storm.

A second push is now ongoing to secure about $750 million to create an ocean outfall pipe and a system to remove nitrogen from treated wastewater before it is dumped into the Atlantic Ocean.

"Nitrogen removal remains a major focus of the county's plans as we repair and improve the plant," County Executive Ed Mangano said.

Bay Park currently releases discharge into Reynolds Channel, which is part of the Western Bays and has long had nutrient problems. The plant accounts for about 70 percent of all nitrogen found in the area, which is on a state list of impaired waters, according to an EPA fact sheet.

The East Rockaway facility is permitted to send 70 million gallons per day of effluent into area waters but averages about 58 million gallons per day.


Assessing the impact

Moving the discharge will ease problems in the Western Bays, but the excess nitrogen could reduce oxygen levels in the ocean, lead to algal blooms and other water quality problems, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says.

The agency supports the ocean outfall but is concerned about low-oxygen levels in the ocean and plans to sample this summer in the area where the pipe may be located, EPA Regional Administrator Judith Enck wrote in a January letter to the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

"Relocating the outfall to the ocean will significantly improve water quality in the Western Bays, and we strongly support this alternative," Enck said in the letter to DEC Commissioner Joe Martens. "However, we must ensure that we do not transfer a water quality problem from one area to another and therefore recommend that New York proceed with evaluating and planning for an ocean outfall with maximum nutrient removal at the plant."

The agency wants nitrogen to be part of early discussions.

Christine Pritchard, a spokeswoman for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, said the state's first priority is repairing the plant and making it resilient. The governor supports the outfall pipe project, and an assessment of nitrogen needs could proceed concurrently with work upgrading the facility.

"Given Nassau County's support for nitrogen treatment, coupled with an ocean outfall, the state is interested in working with them, EPA and other partners to analyze nitrogen limits and determine what treatments are necessary and would be effective," Pritchard said in a statement.

Environmental groups have long pushed for the outfall pipe and say nitrogen removal is key. "It is our strong position that denitrification is needed for an ocean outfall pipe," Citizens Campaign for the Environment executive director Adrienne Esposito said. "We can't create another dead zone in the ocean."

Sen. Charles Schumer also supports nitrogen removal and his office said funding through federal community development block grants and an EPA revolving loan fund for wastewater projects could apply.

"Nitrogen removal, combined with an ocean outfall pipe, is an important piece of the Bay Park puzzle, and is vital to improving the health of the waterways within and off the coast of Long Island," Schumer said.

The nitrogen issue facing the county is twofold -- how to reduce now what is being put into Reynolds Channel and determining at what level to treat the nutrient when the ocean outfall is operating.

DEC is undergoing a review process of the Western Bays to adhere to Clean Water Act laws and state regulations. The agency has not set a date for when the review will be complete but "we expect further limits on the amount of nitrogen will be imposed," spokesman Pete Constantakes said.


Finding the funding

Federal rules stipulate in most cases that emergency Sandy aid can be used for repairs but not upgrades to facilities. So the funds cannot be applied to nitrogen-removal upgrades at the plant because the county did not treat for the nutrient before the storm and no regulations limiting release are in effect, Nassau's Deputy County Executive Rob Walker said.

But a pilot program to reduce nitrogen tested last year was successful and officials hope to implement it throughout the system this year. That and other improvements funded by the county should reduce the amount of nitrogen put into the channel by one-third, said Joe Davenport, chief sanitary engineer for the county Department of Public Works.

Planning for the ocean outfall is hampered because EPA has not established what the ocean nitrogen regulations would be. That issue is under review, though EPA is working with the state and county.

The county estimate for nitrogen removal is about $150 million, though it will depend on federal standards.

"It's impossible to create a design plan without knowing the numbers," Walker said "We could do it and miss standards. Then you're actually wasting money."

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