2005-04-22 / Columnists

On The Bayfront

By Elisa Hinken

Let’s not think for a minute that the City Council, the Department of Environmental Protection and the City of New York itself graciously and voluntarily decided, all of a sudden, Jamaica Bay should garner their utmost attention. In fact, hearings held a few weeks ago were just a smoke screen because something bigger was coming down the pipe. I don’t want to give anyone the “I told you so” because I’ve read many hours worth of court documents that the State Department of Environmental Conservation acquired. Well folks, here is the lowdown:

Attorney General Eliot Spitzer and Acting Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Denise Sheehan have recently announced a court decision that will substantially improve water quality in Long Island Sound and Jamaica Bay.

The decision from state Supreme Court in Manhattan requires that New York City comply with a previously agreed upon plan to significantly reduce harmful nitrogen discharges into Long Island Sound and Jamaica Bay by making upgrades to five large sewage treatment plants.

Conventionally treated sewage discharges are high in nitrogen, which acts as a fertilizer in aquatic environments, resulting in the rapid growth of algae. Large-scale algae growth uses up available oxygen in the water, creating an oxygen-starved environment that can kill or drive off marine life.

As part of a negotiation to resolve thousands of days of violations at these sewage treatment plants and in order to meet a regional plan to reduce nitrogen discharges, the city and the state entered into a binding consent order in April 2002 under which the city committed to improve nitrogen removal at five of its sewage treatment plants over a 12-year period. In February 2004, however, the city sought major changes to the agreement and abandoned its commitments. The state then imposed penalties against the city for failing to implement the agreement. The sewage treatment plants covered by this agreement includes the 26th Ward plant that discharges into Jamaica Bay.

In addition to ruling that the state properly rejected the city’s revised plans, the court granted the state’s counterclaim for penalties that amount to some $13.9 million and ordered that the money be deposited into an escrow account. The money will be returned to the city if it returns to compliance with the terms of the agreement, and meets the final construction deadlines established in the original agreement.

In accordance with the original agreement, the city submitted detailed plans in December 2002 to upgrade its sewage treatment plants so they could meet nitrogen removal requirements. In June 2003, the DEC approved those plans, which established a 12-year upgrade schedule for the five sewage treatment plants. The city proposed a scaled-back plan in February 2004, claiming it had underestimated the cost of implementing the original, approved plan. DEC engineers concluded that the revised plan, however, offered less environmental benefit than the original plan and that the city would fail to meet the nitrogen reduction requirements mandated under federal law.

The upgrade agreement is central to reducing nitrogen discharges in order to satisfy a joint federal and state effort to clean up Long Island Sound. Under federal law, nitrogen discharges must be reduced by 58.5% by 2014.

In my opinion, damages (if any) due to the high nitrogen content we have encountered in Jamaica Bay should be compensated with this escrow account. Okay, I don’t know how many fishing days I’ve lost in the east end of Jamaica Bay because of these horrible algae blooms, but I’m sure there are equipment and boats that have sustained some sort of damage. For the DEP to decide to fight rather than comply with the laws, they made a bad situation even worse.

Sometimes the algae bloom is so bad near the golf course and marina on the Nassau County shores of the bay, it smells to high heaven and then is forced down the streets of nearby neighborhoods during full moon/flood tides. The water tables are very high in certain areas, so the storm drains do a “reverse course”.

For years, the borrow pits have been the “catch all” for any and all problems associated with the bay. However, those who know the bay the best will tell you that problems have been compounded, one after another over the course of many years of abuse and neglect.

It will take a long term plan to undo all the negative effects and once more, hopefully, have a haven where the “clamdiggers” and “oystermen” can legally enjoy clean waters. I just so happen to know a few “clamdiggers” who have equipment still in their garages from yesteryear.

I’m sure they would like to still be able to dust the old stuff off a bit and give it a whirl.

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