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Hempstead gets OK to fix seaweed problem

Mats of seaweed piled up on the beach

Mats of seaweed piled up on the beach at Point Lookout during the of fall 2010. Known as ulva, or sea lettuce, the seaweed is three feet deep in some spots and covers much of the beach. As it rots the seaweed emits hydrogen sulfide. Residents say the stench makes life at times unbearable and worry that long-term exposure may harm their health. Newsday Photo / Jennifer Smith Credit: Newsday/Jennifer Smith

After an emotional meeting with residents frustrated by the stench from rotting seaweed at Point Lookout, the state has issued a permit so the Town of Hempstead can fix an eroding stretch of shoreline where the vegetation collects.

The permit lets Hempstead dredge sand from Jones Inlet and pump it onshore at a severely eroded spot in northeast Point Lookout, where thick mats of seaweed have piled up between two stone groins.

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The decomposing vegetation emits a sulfurous gas called hydrogen sulfide that some people who live nearby say has triggered headaches, nausea and respiratory problems. Many blame the abundance of seaweed on pollution from poorly maintained sewage treatment plants that discharge to the Western Bays behind Long Beach.


 

Hempstead Town spokesman Mike Deery said work would start "as soon as possible," depending on weather and conditions in the inlet. Deery did not know how much the project would cost, but said it would be done by town workers using a dredge Hempstead bought last year with the help of a $1.1-million state grant.

Civic activists and Assemb. Harvey Weisenberg (D-Long Beach) said the dredging permit, issued Dec. 24 by the state Department of Environmental Conservation, was a sign of progress after months of finger-pointing between agencies.

"We had to get somebody to do something," said Weisenberg, who set up the Dec. 14 meeting with residents and local and state officials. "I called the health department, they said, 'It's not us, it's the DEC.' They [the DEC] said, 'It's not us, it's the health department.' "

State health department spokesman Peter Constantakes said the DEC was the lead state agency on the issue because the problem stemmed from environmental conditions.

Weisenberg and Gerry Ottavino of the Point Lookout Civic Association said they hoped removing the seaweed and widening the beach will alleviate a chronic problem some residents say they fear could permanently damage their health.

Nassau health officials have been monitoring air quality in the neighborhood since October and sending samples to the state for analysis.

The most recent samples, from Dec. 10, showed hydrogen sulfide concentrations ranging from .003 to .074 parts per million, said Nassau health spokeswoman Mary Ellen Laurain. The federal worker safety standard for exposure over an eight-hour workday is 10 parts per million.

"There is an odor, and the levels can be an irritant," Constantakes said. "But right now we haven't seen levels that indicate it's a long-term health concern."

Ottavino said he still wants to know at what point hydrogen sulfide levels cross over from being a nuisance and become a health hazard. "The closer you are and the more you breathe, the more damage it will cause," he said.

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