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Coalition seeks alternatives to Fire Island's outdated sewage system

Ocean Beach's sewer treatment plant under construction on

Ocean Beach's sewer treatment plant under construction on Monday.  Credit: Daniel Goodrich

Fire Island, home to scenic vistas and waterfront houses, is facing a problem that is anything but glamorous: an outdated sewage system.

Nearly 20 government agencies, nonprofits and elected officials have joined forces to improve upon Fire Island’s patchwork sewage management system and investigate its impacts on the environment and public health, according to a report released Monday.

The Coalition for Fire Island Wastewater Solutions is seeking to undertake a planning study that outlines possible alternatives — including whether to expand a sewer system in Ocean Beach – in an effort to improve water quality.

The coalition is seeking $500,000 in state funding for the study.

The effort reflects broader attempts across Suffolk County to decrease nitrogen flowing from cesspools and septic systems, which has led to harmful algae blooms, beach closures and fish kills, officials have said.

“We can’t just flush away the problem. We have to think about our impacts if we’re going to stay on this island,” Kaetlyn Jackson, Fire Island National Seashore’s park planner, said of the barrier island.

The coalition began meeting in June after Ocean Beach officials started upgrading Fire Island’s only sewage treatment plant. The $7 million project will nearly double the efficiency of the plant — which currently serves 575 homes  — and create excess capacity that neighboring areas could hook into, Village Clerk / Administrator Steve Brautigam said. An $11 million project will also update the village’s sewer collection system.

Connecting homes to Ocean Beach’s sewer system could “reduce the levels of effluent that may be leaching directly into the bay,” the report said.

The majority of the barrier island’s 3,600 homes and businesses use cesspools and leaching fields, which do not filter waste as well as they should, the report said. They also can back up in rain and flooding conditions, likely leaving contaminants pooling in standing water on residents’ lawns, officials said.

“We don’t want people going to a national seashore and smelling sewage,” said Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment.

Managing sewage is an issue across Suffolk County, where about 360,000 homes are connected to cesspools and septic systems, the report said. Town and county government officials have encouraged residents to replace these systems with ones that emit less nitrogen through rebates and other programs.

“We have the capabilities of fixing that,” said Legis. Steve Flotteron, who is part of the coalition. “If we don’t, Long Island is going to die.”

Only 6 percent of the nitrogen in the Great South Bay, Moriches Bay and Shinnecock Bay comes from Fire Island, the report said.

Three agencies in the coalition are conducting a separate study to assess contaminants in Fire Island’s standing water, which has become more common as sea levels rise, pushing up the water table and decreasing drainage, according to the report.

The questions raised by the coalition align with an effort by residents to evaluate how to preserve and maintain Fire Island "in the face of storms and sea level rise," said Fire Island Association president Suzanne Goldhirsch.  

There will likely be more than one wastewater solution on Fire Island, given the varying density of the communities, officials said. The 32-mile island is home to a mosaic of jurisdictions: 17 communities, including Brookhaven and Islip Town hamlets and two villages; five National Park Service sites; and county and state parks.

Residency swells from 300 to 30,000 in the summer, the report said. More than 2.2 million people visit the island every year.

The barrier island's unique and fragile ecosystem creates added challenges to the waste management effort, officials said. The island’s sandy and porous soils allow fecal bacteria and viruses to travel quickly through groundwater, of which 80 percent flows into the bay, the report said. The water table is so high that older cesspools and septic systems may not be effective, according to the report.

The sewage system does not impact Fire Island’s drinking water supply, which is pumped from Magothy Aquifer, officials said. Bathing beaches are tested regularly and have not been closed due to contaminants, the report said. 
“Its value is in its beauty,” Esposito said of Fire Island. “It’s a global treasure of beauty and tranquility that needs to be preserved, and we don’t want to adversely impact that in any way.”

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