State DEC tests Oyster Bay wastewater to determine the effectiveness of shellfish closure. NewsdayTV's Steve Langford reports. Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Even from a distance, a sea change was evident Wednesday as a New York State Department of Environmental Conservation boat left a ramp at Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Park and motored toward a red plume fanning out in Oyster Bay Harbor.

That change began a short time earlier at nearby Oyster Bay Sewage Treatment Plant, where environmentalists pumped a brightly colored dye into treated wastewater that quickly traveled through an outfall pipe and into the bay.

"We're four minutes out," said Capt. Mike DiMarco, as he piloted the vessel with state officials and media aboard.

Marine biologist Kevin Ryan pointed as the boat drew closer to the plume, what scientists described as a harmless discoloration marking the start of a study focused on protecting the shellfish population by tracking how treated human waste is dispersed into the bay.

The research will determine if the size of the roughly 500-acre area surrounding the plant currently off-limits to shellfishing should expand, shrink or stay the same. It's the first effort to track the plant's effluent since 1976, said Ryan, who works in the DEC's Shellfish Harvest Area Conservation Unit.

Every day, the plant treats about a million gallons of wastewater, according to the DEC.

Two of the three protected areas in Oyster Bay Harbor are closed year-round to shellfish harvesting. One of those areas is 415.5 acres stretching from the western end of the bay to nearly its easternmost point. The other is a 37.4-acre area in Oyster Bay Cove.

North of there, a 58.5-acre section is off-limits to shellfishing between May 1 and Oct. 31, according to state conservation officials.

“There were upgrades to the plant in the 1990s,” Ryan had explained earlier Wednesday as a dye known as Rhodamine WT was injected from a barrel into a plant outfall pipe.

State officials said the dye is harmless to the environment.

“We are conducting this study now to see how those upgrades might affect the closures that were implemented in the '70s,” Ryan added.

A $10.6-million upgrade to the plant also went online in the mid-2000s, according to the Long Island Sound Study, a collaboration of government agencies and groups dedicated to protecting the Sound.

On Wednesday, the dye's release was timed over 12½ hours. It began in the morning to catch multiple tidal cycles in an attempt to best illustrate where the treated wastewater travels, officials said.

After the dye release began, DEC boats patrolled the waters with a fluorometer — a device designed to detect minute levels of the substance — in tow.

The scientists plan to track the dye for about a week and then begin an analysis of the results, according to Ryan.

Officials said the dye would dissipate over the course of a couple days and put out public notifications that the red plume wasn't dangerous.

After the study's results are in, the DEC can change the location and size of the areas that are closed to shellfishing if the data supports such action, according to Ryan.

He said the study also will help state officials prepare to respond to a potential worst-case scenario of the plant malfunctioning and dumping untreated sewage into the bay.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has partnered with state officials for the study. The FDA manages a national program centered on improving the sanitation of shellfish consumption, according to its spokeswoman, Janell Goodwin.

She said the federal agency is providing the equipment and manpower for what's known as a hydrographic dye study, a technique researchers use to understand the movement of substances in water. 

“The team working on the study has over 20 years of experience conducting hydrographic dye studies and brings with them the resources to conduct the study, including the hardware and software needed to track the dye,” Goodwin said in a statement.

Eric Swenson, a member of Friends of the Bay, said the study is vital to ensuring the protection of the harbor.

“If we find that the effluent from the sewage treatment plant extends further than previously thought, we need to know that,” Swenson said. “Conversely, if it doesn’t have as much of an impact, that’s important to know, too.”

Even from a distance, a sea change was evident Wednesday as a New York State Department of Environmental Conservation boat left a ramp at Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Park and motored toward a red plume fanning out in Oyster Bay Harbor.

That change began a short time earlier at nearby Oyster Bay Sewage Treatment Plant, where environmentalists pumped a brightly colored dye into treated wastewater that quickly traveled through an outfall pipe and into the bay.

"We're four minutes out," said Capt. Mike DiMarco, as he piloted the vessel with state officials and media aboard.

Marine biologist Kevin Ryan pointed as the boat drew closer to the plume, what scientists described as a harmless discoloration marking the start of a study focused on protecting the shellfish population by tracking how treated human waste is dispersed into the bay.

The research will determine if the size of the roughly 500-acre area surrounding the plant currently off-limits to shellfishing should expand, shrink or stay the same. It's the first effort to track the plant's effluent since 1976, said Ryan, who works in the DEC's Shellfish Harvest Area Conservation Unit.

Every day, the plant treats about a million gallons of wastewater, according to the DEC.

Two of the three protected areas in Oyster Bay Harbor are closed year-round to shellfish harvesting. One of those areas is 415.5 acres stretching from the western end of the bay to nearly its easternmost point. The other is a 37.4-acre area in Oyster Bay Cove.

North of there, a 58.5-acre section is off-limits to shellfishing between May 1 and Oct. 31, according to state conservation officials.

“There were upgrades to the plant in the 1990s,” Ryan had explained earlier Wednesday as a dye known as Rhodamine WT was injected from a barrel into a plant outfall pipe.

State officials said the dye is harmless to the environment.

“We are conducting this study now to see how those upgrades might affect the closures that were implemented in the '70s,” Ryan added.

A $10.6-million upgrade to the plant also went online in the mid-2000s, according to the Long Island Sound Study, a collaboration of government agencies and groups dedicated to protecting the Sound.

On Wednesday, the dye's release was timed over 12½ hours. It began in the morning to catch multiple tidal cycles in an attempt to best illustrate where the treated wastewater travels, officials said.

After the dye release began, DEC boats patrolled the waters with a fluorometer — a device designed to detect minute levels of the substance — in tow.

Marine biologist Kevin Ryan is shown aboard a New York State...

Marine biologist Kevin Ryan is shown aboard a New York State Department of Environmental Conservation vessel on Wednesday in Oyster Bay Harbor for a study focused on protecting the shellfish population by using harmless dye to track where treated wastewaster travels in the bay. Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

The scientists plan to track the dye for about a week and then begin an analysis of the results, according to Ryan.

Officials said the dye would dissipate over the course of a couple days and put out public notifications that the red plume wasn't dangerous.

After the study's results are in, the DEC can change the location and size of the areas that are closed to shellfishing if the data supports such action, according to Ryan.

He said the study also will help state officials prepare to respond to a potential worst-case scenario of the plant malfunctioning and dumping untreated sewage into the bay.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has partnered with state officials for the study. The FDA manages a national program centered on improving the sanitation of shellfish consumption, according to its spokeswoman, Janell Goodwin.

She said the federal agency is providing the equipment and manpower for what's known as a hydrographic dye study, a technique researchers use to understand the movement of substances in water. 

“The team working on the study has over 20 years of experience conducting hydrographic dye studies and brings with them the resources to conduct the study, including the hardware and software needed to track the dye,” Goodwin said in a statement.

Eric Swenson, a member of Friends of the Bay, said the study is vital to ensuring the protection of the harbor.

“If we find that the effluent from the sewage treatment plant extends further than previously thought, we need to know that,” Swenson said. “Conversely, if it doesn’t have as much of an impact, that’s important to know, too.”

WHAT TO KNOW

  • A hydrographic dye study is tracking how treated wastewater disperses in Oyster Bay Harbor.
  • Scientists injected a harmless dye into a treatment plant's outfall to track the effluent's path in the water.
  • The study will determine if areas closed to shellfish harvesting should change or stay the same and will help scientists prepare to respond to a potential spill of untreated waste.
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