Friday, January 05, 2007

Does New York Sea Grant Think the Long Island Sound Cleanup Plan Won't Work?

Those involved in the Long Island Sound cleanup, and those who follow it, were no doubt astonished to read the new issue of Coastlines, the magazine published by New York Sea Grant.

Sea Grant has been a participant in the Long Island Sound Study for probably 20 years, and has participated in the process that resulted in the nitrogen reduction plan for sewage treatment plants -- the plan that is the basis of the Sound cleanup. In fact Jack Mattice, the director of New York Sea Grant, is on the management committee of the Long Island Sound Study. The management committee oversees the day to day work of the cleanup. New York Sea Grant’s base of operations, at SUNY Stony Brook, is one of the Long Island Sound program’s two offices.

Which is why it was surprising to click on the current Coastlines and see that on page 4 Barbara Branca, New York Sea Grant’s communications manager, writes of the western end of Long Island Sound:

Upgrading sewage treatment at great cost will not necessarily relieve hypoxic conditions.

This is an important and troubling assertion for a key participant of the Long Island Sound Study to be making, because upgrading sewage treatment at great cost to relieve hypoxia is the foundation of the Long Island Sound cleanup. It’s why New York State hammered out an agreement with New York City about a year ago to put the city on a firm nitrogen reduction schedule. It’s why such a big deal was made about Connecticut’s decision in recent years to stop putting money into its Clean Water Fund, which is the source of financing for sewage plant upgrades.

But now we hear from Sea Grant, whose director is on the LISS management committee, that it might not work. Sea Grant seems to be saying that the money we are spending on nitrogen reduction upgrades at sewage treatment plants might be wasted.

Not only that but the article quotes Larry Swanson, a SUNY Stony Brook professor and also a member of the management committee, as saying something that, assuming he's been quoted accurately, is either misleading or ignorant of the Sound cleanup process.

Branca’s article is called Sound Reflections, and it’s a review of several decades of work on Long Island Sound, concentrating on research that New York Sea Grant funded. After outlining earlier decades, Branca moves to the 1990s. Here’s an excerpt:

Later that decade at Stony Brook University’s Marine Sciences Research Center, Larry
Swanson, director of the Waste Reduction and Management Institute and Bob Wilson, a physical oceanographer, found that physical and climatic factors play an important role in controlling dissolved oxygen levels in LIS. With funding from NYSG, they examined historical NYC data from a monitoring station near Hart Island in western LIS where oceanographic data have been recorded since 1914. They found that DO data from the 1990s showed declining summertime DO concentration in bottom waters over the past five decades. The pair also examined the hydrography, salinity, temperature and seasonal stratification and concluded that DO levels are controlled, in part, by physical and climatic factors which are beyond human control. Hart Island, a hotspot for hypoxia, lies near the mouth of the East River close to the outflow of many NYC sewage treatment plants and is hemmed in by the Hempstead sill, a relatively shallow region that serves to isolate it from the deeper waters of the Sound. The research suggests that this particular hydrology is what may cause the onset, severity and duration of hypoxia. In other words, a predictor of hypoxia is “location, location, location.”

Results from this project may limit the anticipated effectiveness of implementing mandated TMDLs at sewage treatment plants. Says Swanson, “This precise analysis of hypoxia’s cause is of great importance especially when municipalities and managers propose upgrades from secondary to tertiary sewage treatment.” Upgrading sewage treatment at great cost will not necessarily relieve hypoxic conditions. [emphasis added]

From 1994 to 2004 municipalities along the Sound have improved sewage treatment and successfully reduced nutrient loadings by 24 percent according to the Sound Health 2006 Report published by LISS. Yet summer hypoxia persists. ...

Look again at what Swanson is quoted as saying:

“This precise analysis of hypoxia’s cause is of great importance especially when municipalities and managers propose upgrades from secondary to tertiary sewage treatment.”

Now let's review the facts of the Long Island Sound cleanup.


Those upgrades are already well underway and they were the result of years of study and political compromise (in the best sense), and they were agreed to by the regional directors of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the governors or New York and Connecticut. The agreement was formalized in the Comprehensive Conservation and Management Plan. And the states and EPA reaffirmed their commitment to the plan just a few months ago, at a much-ballyhooed meeting in Rye.

In other words, far from being something that managers and municipalities are proposing, the sewage plant upgrades are the policy of the United States government and the states of New York and Connecticut.

So what could Jack Mattice and Barbara Branca and Larry Swanson possibly be thinking? Do Mattice and Swanson represent a dissenting wing of the Long Island Sound Study? Are they using Coastlines to distance themselves from the massive cleanup? If so, are they misleading us on purpose when Swanson says that managers and municipalities are proposing sewage treatment upgrades -- and when Branca and her boss, Mattice, allow him to say it without contradiction?



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