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Nitrogen Pollution On L.I.: Environmental Public Enemy No. 1

During the hot summer months, Suffolk County closes beaches and ponds that are infected with algal blooms that stain the water.

“You know you see more of them in the mid-summer than you do now, although this year we have seen quite a few already,” said Michael Jensen, an ecologist with the Suffolk County Health Department.

There are already five bodies of water—Marratooka, Agawam, Wickapogue and Wainscott Ponds and Lake Ronkonkoma—affected by algal blooms in Mattituck and Southampton this summer.  

Suffolk County health officials closed those waters because of the health risk to children, pets and marine life.

“If the environmental conditions are right, and the combination with a source of food for them and sunlight is present, there can be a bloom,” Jensen said.

Algae naturally occur in warm, still water but with nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen, they thrive into blooms, which paint the water’s surface in shades of blue-green, yellow, brown or red.  

Earlier this year, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone called nitrogen pollution the county’s environmental public enemy number one.

Many Suffolk homeowners have septic tanks. They contribute to the majority of nitrogen pollution that seeps into the county’s waterways.

Last year Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences on Long Island researched an algal bloom phenomenon in Flanders Bay, which led to fish dying.  

High levels of nitrogen have led to huge algal blooms, which suck out oxygen and kill marine life.

Marine scientist and conservationist Konstantine Rountos said nitrogen pollution is what leads to fish kills. That is because of poor wastewater management and dangerous runoff.

“Humans are building up our coastal areas instead of having salt marshes that may trap nutrients,” Rountos said. “So we are losing our buffering ability to protect the bays.”   

According to the university’s research, if Long Island’s groundwater is not intercepted, it will be piped out toward the coastal ocean and inland ponds.

Christopher Gobler with the New York State Center for Clean Water Technology said he expects that there will be more closures this year.

“Last year there were 16 lakes and ponds that closed for at least some period of time in Suffolk County,” Gobler said. “It is not a stretch to think that we might see that number, close to that number or more than that number again.”

Gobler said that more needs to be done to fix the county’s nitrogen pollution problem.

New York State has pushed for upgrades in wastewater treatment facilities, which led to 40 million fewer pounds of nitrogen in the Long Island Sound in 2014. But other sources of nitrogen have remained steady—or increased.

Now, the Environmental Protection Agency has released a plan to meet new targets for nitrogen reduction. Last month Senator Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., called for funds to make sure the plan was implemented.

A plan, though, has still not been settled on.

Water quality advocacy groups say sewage can be managed affordably by converting the nitrogen to a less harmful gas.

Algal blooms are only toxic with extended contact or consumption. Children and individuals with health conditions are at greater risk. Pets have been known to get ill or die from drinking contaminated water.

Suffolk County health officials say anyone who does have contact with the bloom should rinse with clean water immediately. Anyone having difficulty breathing, an allergic reaction or nausea should seek medical attention.