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Bellone seeks federal funds to fix infrastructure, curb fish kills

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone holds up a

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone holds up a Suffolk County water resource management plan book during a news conference at the Peconic River in Riverhead Saturday afternoon, June 20, 2015. He addressed concerns about recent fish kills in the Peconic. Credit: James Carbone

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone Saturday sought to tie recent fish kills in the Peconic River to a broader water-quality crisis, and called for federal funds to combat nitrogen pollution from septic systems and fertilizers.

Bellone, speaking at a news conference alongside the Peconic River at the Riverhead Yacht Club, described the hundreds of thousands of dead bunker fish that washed up in recent weeks as "a stark reminder to all of us that we have an urgent issue to address in this region."

State Department of Environmental Conservation and county health officials are expected to issue a report on the precise causes of the fish kills in a matter of weeks, Bellone said.

Jim Gilmore, chief of the marine resources bureau of the DEC, said early findings showed an estimated 300,000 to 400,000 bunker fish asphyxiated in the river in three recent die-offs.

An initial die-off in early May went largely unnoticed, but the second in late May to early June drew officials' attention after more than 200,000 fish died, he said. A smaller one followed last week.

Gilmore said a number of factors seem to have contributed to the die-offs, including an unusually early appearance of an algae known to produce a mucus that coats fish gills and interferes with breathing. Scientists have blamed nitrogen pollution for the greater frequency of algal blooms in local waters.

Gilmore also said the bunker, a baitfish also known as menhaden, congregated in large numbers in the Peconic Estuary this year for warmth and were chased upriver by an unusually large number of bluefish, preventing them from leaving.

Bellone called on federal officials to provide more money for sewers and other pollution-mitigation efforts, saying the Peconic Estuary was one of 28 in the country federal officials have deemed to be nationally significant. "We don't have the resources we need to reverse this water-quality decline and protect this national treasure," he said.

Bellone declined to cite a specific funding amount or projects for which the money would be used but said solving the county's water-quality problems would cost billions and involve new wastewater infrastructure.

About 70 percent of Suffolk homes have aging septic systems that are the major source of nitrogen pollution on Long Island, county officials and scientists have said.

Riverhead Town Supervisor Sean Walter, who led an effort to remove 10,000 pounds of dead bunker from the Peconic River last week, said at the news conference that he wants to draft plans to reduce nitrogen pollution by building sewers on Peconic Bay Boulevard, a road that lies along northern banks of the river.

Sewers would stop runoff from lawns from reaching -- and polluting -- the river.Walter also called on residents on the riverfront to stop fertilizing their lawns. "Your neighbors are not going to care if it's a little brown," he said.

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