Workers in Kismet, Fire Island sample groundwater for a study...

Workers in Kismet, Fire Island sample groundwater for a study on how septic systems leach micropollutants into groundwater. Credit: United States Geological Survey

The Village of Ocean Beach is pondering expansion of its sewer system throughout Fire Island in an attempt to stop the flow of nitrogen and other pollutants, such as drugs and hormones, into groundwater supplies.

Ocean Beach is the only residential area on the barrier island with a sewer system and wastewater treatment facility. It currently serves 575 homes and about two dozen commercial properties.

Village Clerk/Treasurer Steven Brautigam said if the 2,200 additional homes and commercial operations on the barrier island tied into a sewer system, an estimated more than 200 pounds of nitrogen per day would be removed and prevented from going into Great South Bay.

"We have an opportunity to address this," Brautigam said. "We're right in the middle of the bay. We can make a big difference on this little scale."

The sewer system, built in 1921 and last upgraded in the 1970s, has extra capacity and village officials have put out a request for proposals to look at options. Those include expansion, retrofitting and/or creating a pumping station to connect to the Southwest Sewer District across the bay.

The intent is not to encourage more building on the island, Brautigam said.

Funding to study the options would have to be cobbled together from local, state and federal sources because it's not an expense the village, with its annual $8 million budget, can handle alone. The village has reached out to other Fire Island groups, and county, state and federal officials.

Many cesspools on Fire Island are antiquated and the lack of roads makes service calls nearly impossible, Brautigam said. A sewer system would allow residents to upgrade and help solve a problem plaguing the area. Superstorm Sandy damaged the system in 2012 but it was never offline and the village is working with federal grants to finish repairs.

"Certain times of the year, the septic is basically seeping into the [Great South] Bay through groundwater infiltration," Fire Island National Seashore Superintendent Christopher Soller said.

Nitrogen pollution

Seventy percent of nitrogen pollution in Great South Bay comes from failing septic systems that leach into groundwater and the pollutants end up eventually in surface water, said Justin Meyers, an assistant deputy county executive in Suffolk.

Since early last year, the county has been on a campaign to reduce nitrogen pollution because it degrades marshes, sea grass and other natural barriers that can blunt the force of wave action and storms.

In addition to educating the public and proposing sewer systems in appropriate places, the county is investigating septic systems through a pilot program.

"The nitrogen comes from human waste and that is what is killing off the bays," Meyers said. "It's killing off the plant life in the Great South Bay, which is essentially our storm resiliency."

The county held a lottery last year and raffled off 20 different donated septic systems to homeowners. Winners got free installation and five years' maintenance in exchange for allowing county officials to test how the septic systems work in curbing pollution.

They will be installed in the next few weeks. Each system is different; all reduce nitrogen and other pollutants. "For us here on Long Island, nitrogen pollution is the largest issue," Meyers said. "Our significant investment in dollars needs to go toward these types of systems to take care of all of that."

By the end of this year, the county hopes to have a list of on-site approved septic system technologies. The county has also obtained $300 million in Community Development Block Grants and $83 million in low-interest financing from the state for sewer infrastructure upgrades, Meyers said.

A United States Geological Survey study published in December is helping make the case for better treatment systems.

Study helps

The study, published in the journal Science of the Total Environment, looked at septic systems in New York and New England. It found that the systems were leaching nitrogen, hormones, pharmaceuticals, insect repellents and even sunscreen additives into shallow groundwater samples taken on Fire Island.

Scientists say that while nitrogen contamination gets a lot of attention because of the ecological harm it can do, government planners should also take note of other micropollutants that filter through septic systems.

"One of the last things you want to say is, 'Don't use your pharmaceuticals,' " said Patrick Phillips, one of the study's authors and a supervisory hydrologist with USGS in Troy. "But are there things we can afford that will take this out of the environment."

In addition to small seasonal systems on Fire Island, researchers also looked at a single large septic system serving an extended care facility in New England.

"Nitrate has always been a big issue," said Irene Fisher, a hydrologist with the USGS Water Science Center in Coram and one of the study's authors. "Everyone is talking about it. We wanted to know what else is there."

The study found that different contaminants were associated with the survey places. In addition to the hormones, drugs and sunscreen additives, Fire Island samples included traces of a perfume fragrance, floor cleaners, breakdown products from detergents, a local anesthetic and a mood-stabilizing drug.

"It's justification that we need to be doing something different on the Island," Soller said.

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