An aerial view of the Bergen Point Sewage Plant in...

An aerial view of the Bergen Point Sewage Plant in West Babylon. Credit: Daniel Goodrich, 2008

The Great South Bay has trouble enough without a catastrophic spill of treated human waste. So it's time for Suffolk County to move more urgently to head off that doomsday event.

The clam harvest in the bay is down drastically. One major culprit is degradation of the bay with nitrogen and other pollutants from sources that include cesspools and stormwater runoff cascading from parking lots and roadways. Another problem is over-harvesting of clams.

The result is that this body of water, so crucial to both the Island's economy and its environment, is increasingly fragile. That's why we must take all the steps necessary to make sure there is no major break in the 14,000 feet of pipeline that runs from the county's Bergen Point sewage treatment plant to Cedar Beach. (Another pipe, undamaged, carries the waste 17,000 feet out into the Atlantic.)

The county Department of Public Works learned that pipe similar to the bay section had developed problems in other states. Then a test found breaks in more than 700 reinforcing wires. A consulting firm called that the worst set of breaks it had monitored.

Though the county has ordered replacement pipe to have on hand in case calamity occurs, we need something better than a wait-until-it-breaks strategy. Earlier this month, the department presented a much better idea to the county's Council on Environmental Quality: new pipe laid in a tunnel deep below the floor of the bay, dug by powerful, modern machinery.

This would be more environmentally sound and less costly than replacing the existing pipe, a project estimated at $150 million. A tunnel far below the bay bottom would not disturb the ecosystem. Simply replacing the current pipe, which sits much closer to the bay bottom, would disrupt marine life. It would cost more, because it would require a less efficient construction schedule to minimize the disturbance, plus other mitigation measures. It would also face a tough permit process with the state's Department of Environmental Conservation.

So the tunnel seems the way to go. After appropriate review, the council should approve it, and the legislature and executive move expeditiously to get this bay-saving project going.