If you ranked all the nonlethal impacts of Sandy, losing a home would likely come in first, but living in a home with a basement filled with untreated or partly treated sewage would have to come in close to the top. And being a sanitation worker who has to pick up bags filled with excrement, because that's the only way homeowners know how to get rid of it, would also rank high on that doleful list.
That's what happened when Sandy's storm surge inundated just one Nassau County sewage treatment plant, Bay Park. The storm also damaged plants in Lawrence and Long Beach, as well as one in Yonkers, which sent untreated sewage into the Hudson River. Long Island has other plants that managed to escape Sandy's fury. Cedar Creek in Nassau and the Bergen Point plant in Suffolk, for example, survived the storm without major damage. But if a Sandy-like storm were to cripple those plants, it wouldn't be pretty.
If this event taught us nothing else, it gave us a graphic view of what a totally malfunctioning sewage treatment plant can look like. In the case of Bay Park, which treats about 40 percent of Nassau's sewage, it meant a massive flow of sewage into Reynolds Channel and backups that affected homes served by the plant. This plant has come under strong criticism in the past, for failure to control odors affecting the surrounding homes. Smells are bad; raw sewage in basements is far worse.
The only sensible response is a close look at what it will take to harden Bay Park and other treatment plants on the Island against future ferocious storms. As Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo put it, it seems as if the storm of a century is now roaring through here every two years. That requires some urgent and intelligent thinking on any number of issues, such as gas supply lines and the Long Island Power Authority's planning and physical infrastructure. That rethinking must include the sewage treatment plants: What will it take to increase their defenses against storms like Sandy, or worse? What will it cost?
Nassau County, which runs Bay Park, is studying the feasibility of at least extending the plant's outfall pipe into the ocean. The county got the money for the study when the state Department of Environmental Conservation allowed it to use for that purpose funds that Nassau would otherwise have had to pay in fines for substandard operation of the plant. An ocean outfall makes more sense than dumping even treated sewage into sensitive bays. But an ocean outfall is not enough. The county must at least find a way to locate the plant's electrical components in a configuration safer from a surge. And County Executive Edward Mangano will have a tougher time now explaining his already dubious plan to sell treatment plants to a private operator, once government money pays for the needed upgrades.
As to Cuomo, he has to show statewide leadership in preparing for future storms. It's difficult to imagine where the state can find the many millions of dollars it might cost to Sandy-proof sewage treatment plants. But this smelly, public-health-endangering experience makes it obvious that the state has to confront the issue seriously, even though it affected far fewer people than the loss of power did. We simply cannot have sewage in streets and homes.