Nitrogen is a colorless, odorless substance found in the human body. It makes up about 78% of Earth’s atmosphere. It’s used for a wide variety of beneficial purposes, including food preservation, pharmaceuticals, manufacturing and construction.
But too much nitrogen can be a bad thing. That’s especially so when nitrogen contained in rainwater runoff, septic tank drainage, and excess flows from sewer systems winds up in our bays, rivers and Long Island Sound, causing huge environmental problems. Nitrogen fuels the growth of algae in the Sound, leading to very low levels of dissolved oxygen. This hurts fish, plants and other forms of wildlife. Each summer, the condition, known as hypoxia, afflicts the western half of Long Island Sound.
To combat this problem, New York’s two U.S. senators, Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, along with Connecticut’s two senators, have introduced a cleanup bill for the Sound. It reauthorizes federal funding expiring this year. Over five years, The Long Island Sound Restoration and Stewardship Act would provide a total $325 million for projects to improve water quality and restore shorelines and coastal wetlands. A companion bill has been introduced in the House by Rep. Nick LaLota and is backed by colleagues Anthony D'Esposito and Andrew Garbarino.
This bill continues federal assistance in the ongoing fight against high levels of nitrogen. Over the past several decades, the harmful blooms and dead zones from this pollution have also degraded our coastal marshes and wetlands. Some scientists predict that heavier rains caused by warmer temperatures from climate change will only heighten this threat.
Long Island Sound is a source of beauty and pride for the more than 20 million residents in two states who live within 50 miles of its shoreline. But the Sound is also an engine of economic growth — contributing $9.4 billion annually to the regional economy — that must be protected. Who wants to go to a seaside restaurant and see patches of brown algae and dead fish from this form of nitrogen pollution caused by human activity?
In 1990, a Long Island Sound Improvement Act provided federal money for cleanup projects, including wastewater treatment improvements. Advocates of the new funding reauthorization bill correctly point to the long-term improvements this overall effort has made in the Sound’s environmental quality, like the reopening of certain shellfish beds because the water became livable again.
Schumer and Gillibrand say federal funding over the years for more than 500 cleanup and conservation efforts across the Sound has had a significant impact on reducing nitrogen pollution. It has cut by 70% the amount of nitrogen from the sewer treatment plants that line the Sound since the funding first started to flow. And the killing impact of hypoxic conditions has dropped by 58% during that same time.
The firm commitment to keep the Sound clean and beautiful — embodied in this bill — deserves the support of all Long Islanders.
MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.