Monday, March 03, 2008

Helping Westchester Meets Its Long Island Sound Cleanup Goal

If you’ve been following the Long Island Sound cleanup, on this blog and elsewhere, you know that Westchester County has a problem. Years ago, when solutions to hypoxia were first being agreed on and the goal of reducing nitrogen from sewage plants was set at 58.5 percent, New York State told Westchester that nitrogen reduction probably would cost between $30 million and $50 million (I’m working from memory here, mine and someone else’s). Then the county did the actual engineering studies and learned that the cost was a bit higher – more like $355 million to $573 million. Since those costs have to be borne by taxpayers, that’s a problem. (There's background from my blog here.)

The county has known this for some time – at least two years, I think – and has been trying to convince New York State to authorize a nitrogen credit trading program similar to Connecticut’s, which is working well. But New York isn’t interested in establishing such a program for Westchester. For a nitrogen credit trading program to work, one sewer district has to be able to remove nitrogen to the extent that it exceeds the 58.5 percent goal. Let’s say its 58.5 percent goal is to remove 500 pounds of nitrogen a day. But in reality it removes 700 pounds. It has exceeded its goal and gets credit for the additional 200 pounds. Another district that is having a difficult time meeting the goal can then buy those credits, or some part of them.

The official reason New York State isn’t interested in nitrogen trading is that there are no sewage districts in New York with nitrogen credits to sell, according to the state. I’m told that an unofficial reason is that the state thinks that eventually the 58.5 percent nitrogen reduction goal will be increased and it wants to keep whatever gains and particular district makes so it can receive credit for it then.

But I’ve been told directly by two very knowledgeable people, and indirectly by a third who is equally knowledgeable, that there actually are sewage districts that could sell credits to Westchester.

Great Neck, for example, could undertake a nitrogen removal program that could allow Westchester to buy credits for perhaps 200 pounds of nitrogen a day, maybe more. That might allow the county to avoid having to do nitrogen removal on one of its two smaller plants (Blind Brook, which is in Rye, or Port Chester). But the state won’t consider it.

The situation is this. There are two sewage treatment plants in Great Neck, both of which have to remove 58.5 percent of the nitrogen they discharge into the Sound by 2014, just like all the other sewage plants on the Sound (except for New York City, which is big and politically powerful and so was granted a three-year extension).

The operators of the plants in Great Neck can meet their nitrogen reduction goal by either upgrading or undertaking a project to send their sewage to a Nassau County plant on the Atlantic Shore of Long Island, where hypoxia caused by nitrogen is not a problem.

If the plants in Great Neck are upgraded, they will meet their 58.5 percent goal. But if Great Neck chooses the diversion option, it will have eliminated 100 percent of its nitrogen discharge into the Sound, not just 58.5 percent. If it did that, Great Neck should get a reward. The reward could be that Great Neck could then sell the credits for all or most of the nitrogen above 58.5 percent to Westchester County.

I’m told that that could equal about 200 pounds a day. On the one hand, that’s a drop in the bucket. Westchester is required to remove 2,784 pounds of nitrogen a day, and 200 pounds is just 7 percent.

But the cost of nitrogen removal is estimated to be $355 million to $573 million. Assuming the costs are relatively proportional, a 7 percent savings would equal $25 million to $40 million (minus the cost of the nitrogen credits it will have to buy).

Unfortunately for Westchester, the two Long Island plants – one in the town of Great Neck, the other in the village – are planning to merge. One will be shut down and the other expanded and upgraded to handle the wastewater from both. Diversion was studied but rejected. Apparently some engineers in the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation favor closing the plants and diverting the wastewater, but DEC lawyers don’t.

Diversion can be very difficult politically, because people who live near the wastewater plant that the sewage is being diverted to feel as if the extra sewage will someone be a personal burden on them.

Westchester County and New York State experienced a political uproar not logn ago over a plan to take sewage from a treatment plant in Yorktown that empties into the New York City drinking water supply and divert it to a treatment plant in Peekskill that empties into the Hudson River. That plan seemed to be a no-brainer. Treated sewage has to go somewhere. Is it better to put it in the drinking water of the country’s largest city or in the Hudson? After years of listening to people and politicians in Peekskill and elsewhere scream that the diversion plan equaled environmental racism, the county and the state backed off.

Now the county wants to try it again, in a place that is safe politically (nobody on Long Island votes in Westchester), but the state flatly says no.

For what it’s worth, I think they ought to try again, perhaps with some new people negotiating who have cooler heads and haven’t established a personal stake in being right. If there’s a solution that can benefit Great Neck and Westchester, and which will be good for Long Island Sound, it’s worth a shot.

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Blogger Sam said...

I guess I don't understand it, Tom, since many wastewater treatment facilities can get nitrogen removal rates of close to 90% and meet EPA standards just fine. Of course, nitrification with Nitrobacter and denitrification with other processes is expensive ... but the technology has been around for decades. Did these guys just fall off the turnip truck or what?

The one thing I found is that during conversion of ammonia to nitrate and gases, some nitrous (N2O) can be created. It turns out that nitrous oxide is a very powerful greenhouse gas. That's a topic for another day ...

12:36 PM  

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