This is Bay Walk, looking east. An effort to find...

This is Bay Walk, looking east. An effort to find a wastewater solution on Fire Island, Dec. 3, 2018, given that outdated cesspools and a shallow water table mean sewage frequently pools. Credit: Daniel Goodrich

A groundbreaking new study on sewage solutions for Fire Island recommends piping wastewater to Long Island among potential initiatives to address nitrogen pollution in the Great South Bay.

The proposed solution is among multiple long- and short-term recommendations outlined in a six-year study that represents the first comprehensive, community-led look at sewage on Fire Island, said Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, which issued the report. 

An increase in both tourists and year-round residents on the island has continued to burden dated sewage systems across Fire Island, contributing to pollution in the Great South Bay, officials said. The island's lack of infrastructure has made it costlier and more difficult to update antiquated solutions.

“When you ignore the problem, the problem gets worse. And that’s what’s happened on Fire Island,” Esposito said. 

WHAT TO KNOW

  • A new study on sewage solutions for Fire Island recommends piping wastewater to Long Island among multiple long- and short-term recommendations to address nitrogen pollution in the Great South Bay.

  • The six-year study represents the first comprehensive look at sewage on Fire Island, said Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, which issued the report. 

  • The antiquated sewage systems in place across much of the island contribute to harmful algal blooms and fishery losses in surrounding waterways, including the Great South Bay and Shinnecock Bay, Suffolk Legis. Steve Flotteron (R-Brightwaters) said.

Citizens Campaign for the Environment advised the Suffolk County Legislature on Monday to undertake a feasibility study to further look at marine-based alternatives such as the underground pipe. The feasibility study would help qualify such projects for state and federal grants, officials said. 

The 215-page study was conducted by Cameron Engineering. 

Funded by a $190,000 grant from Suffolk County, the report documents existing wastewater infrastructure and offers recommendations and cost estimates for each of the 17 communities on the barrier island, which has around 4,000 homes and one wastewater treatment plant in Ocean Beach that can process 500,000 gallons of waste per day.

Many homes and businesses on Fire Island use cesspools, septic tanks, leaching pools and advanced septic systems designed to process sewage and remove nitrogen. But, the study said, high groundwater limits the effectiveness of these systems.

The ineffectiveness of current wastewater infrastructure poses a potentially “significant public health concern” from pollutants, pathogens and other contaminants that may enter nearby water bodies, the study said.

The antiquated sewage systems in place across much of the island contribute to harmful algal blooms and fishery losses in surrounding waterways, including the Great South Bay and Shinnecock Bay, Legis. Steve Flotteron (R-Brightwaters) said. 

 Flotteron, who sponsored the grant that funded the report, also said, “part of our cash cow for the South Shore is Fire Island. It’s a destination.”

Federal agencies anticipate sea levels will rise more than 2 feet around the metropolitan area by 2050, according to the report. 

Fire Island residents have reported a 1-to 2-foot rise in sea levels over the past 20 years and increased flooding during rain events and storm tides, especially on the bay side of the island, the study said.

A continued rise in groundwater will likely impact the constructability and effectiveness of existing treatment systems, and system failures could create increased potential for public health risks, according to the report. 

Flotteron and Esposito, who presented the report to members of the Suffolk County Legislature, highlighted multiple logistical challenges to addressing the lack of sewage treatment, such as limited ferry schedules and the lack of roads and contractors who can work on Fire Island.

Some other solutions outlined in the report include advanced septic systems, expanding the wastewater treatment plant in Ocean Beach, barging wastewater to treatment plants in Ocean Beach or on the mainland, using Fire Island National Seashore property for treatment plant sites, and implementing technologies such as compost toilets, a type of dry toilet, and incineration toilets, which burn waste. 

Legis. Anthony Piccirillo (R-Holtsville), who heads the committee the study was presented to, said the report was a "long time coming" and he hopes to move forward with next steps on an "advanced timeline." 

"We're finding out that a lot of the waste from Fire Island is actually being let back into the Great South Bay and not into the ocean," he said. "The quicker that we can put parts of this plan into action ... I think we're going to be able to have a lot healthier Great South Bay and may be able to keep beaches open without the number of closures that we're having on a regular basis." 

Chris Gobler, a marine and atmospheric sciences professor at Stony Brook University who has monitored local waterways since 2014, praised the study for "considering lots of different options" to solve the issue. 

Wastewater from both Long Island and Fire Island is the biggest source of pollution for Great South Bay, he said. 

Fire Island attracts more than 2 million visitors each year, primarily during the summer, according to the report. There are around 300 year-round residents.

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