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Scientists test water samples near Bay Park sewage plant

Darvene Adams divides seabed samples into containers designated

Darvene Adams divides seabed samples into containers designated to test for different possible contaminants. (Nov. 22, 2013) Credit: Johnny Milano

More than a year after superstorm Sandy, scientists are collecting water and sediment samples near Bay Park Sewage Treatment Plant and other similar facilities in New York and New Jersey that failed during the storm.

A team from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Geological Survey recently boated around Reynolds Channel, Hewlett Bay and creeks to collect samples to measure how raw and partly treated sewage released from Bay Park may impact the area.

The plant was overcome by a wave more than 9 feet high.

It was knocked offline for days, releasing 104 million gallons of raw sewage in the immediate aftermath and another 2.2 billion gallons of partly treated sewage in the weeks that followed, according to EPA.

On a brisk late-November day, two EPA scientists and one USGS scientist left the Long Beach Boat Ramp to gather samples at nine locations.

Some were close to the East Rockaway facility, others were in Reynolds Channel near the Bay Park outfall pipe and some were at points in between.

The goal of the project is to compare these sediments with samples collected back to 2008 to see what sort of change, if any, can be detected.

"We only take the top inches because that's the recent deposition," said Darvene A. Adams, an EPA program officer in the Division of Environmental Science and Assessment.

Anchored off a point north of Harbor Isle, the crew dropped a small dredge into the water, sending it down about 28 feet until it hit the bottom.

A claw-like device attached to the end dug into the ground, collecting about five pounds of dark, brown sediment.

On this trip, the EPA was charged with collecting sediments to test for contaminants, such as pesticides, metals, polychlorinated biphenyls -- PCBs -- and organic matter.

"It's a little smelly," Adams said as she mixed the sediment and measured it into separate bottles for testing. "It could be naturally occurring, decaying plant debris."

USGS hydrologist Shawn Fisher was collecting sediments to be tested for bacteria, hormones, pharmaceuticals and other compounds.

"We are looking for a whole bunch of compounds that are categorized as wastewater indicators," Fisher said.

Some samples were sent to a lab in Denver and others went to Queens College, where the sediment will be tested to see how microbes that are antibiotic-resistant react to wastewater.

"Within the sediment these microbes have the potential to live longer than microbes in the water," said Gregory O'Mullan, an assistant professor of microbiology at Queens College.

"[The sewage discharges] may drive the microbial community to be different than it was after months."

"This kind of event can open our eyes to potential consequences," he added.

The two-year EPA study is part of a $570,000 regional project assessing wastewater and drinking water facilities and the long-term effects Sandy had on the coastal waters in both states.

The EPA is also collecting samples at a plant in Westchester and at the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission and Middlesex County Utility Authority, both in New Jersey.

Collectively, the four treatment plants released more than 2 billion gallons of untreated or raw sewage and 6.4 billion gallons of partially treated sewage after the storm, the EPA said.