Nassau County's largest sewage treatment plant has stopped discharging more than 5,000 pounds per day of harmful nitrogen into Reynolds Channel, improving fish and water quality and helping restore marshland that acts as a storm surge barrier for South Shore home and business owners, officials announced Monday.
The Bay Park Water Reclamation Facility's $19.6 million Biological Nutrient Removal system, which went online this summer, eliminates about 40% of the nitrogen discharged from the plant, according to county, state and federal lawmakers.
Sen. Chuck Schumer, who helped secure a $810 million grant for Bay Park after superstorm Sandy that funded the nitrogen removal system, called the old plant a "dinosaur" and one of the "largest and most polluting facilities" in the nation.
"Nitrogen has been public enemy number one for a very long time for our homeowners, for our Back Bays, for our Western Bays and for the Long Island environment," Schumer said at a news conference outside the East Rockaway plant.
Nitrogen pollution from the treatment plant has depleted oxygen in the area's waterways, damaging fisheries, creating dangerous algae blooms and destroying tidal marshes, officials said.
"This was one of the greatest engineering debacles in civil engineering history," said State Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach) of the plant's old system. "People used to say effluent from this treatment plant would go into the Western Bays but be flushed out into the ocean each night. The flushing out never happened. The effluent just sat in the Western Bays. The nitrogen ate away at the ecosystem and nothing lives there anymore."
The new BNR system uses state-of-the-art technology and dilution, including mixers and a surface waste activation sludge system, to remove nitrogen and phosphorous from the wastewater. The project required improvements to the plant's electrical, heating, ventilation, air conditioning, plumbing, demolition and debris removal systems.
"The upgrade to the Bay Park plant will help prevent nitrogen pollution from degrading marsh islands, killing wildlife and damaging the delicate ecosystem that is vital to Long Island's resiliency and ecological future," Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said in a statement.
Environmental advocates hope the BNR system — along with a separate process known as "sidestream deammonification," scheduled to be completed in December 2021 — will eventually combine to reduce the overall nitrogen load going into Reynolds Channel by 75% to 90%.
Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, said the result will be that the region's waterways will be cleaner, fish and wildlife will return and shellfish beds will reopen.
"We need our wetlands," Esposito said. "They are not a luxury item. They are a necessity. This project will benefit every person in Nassau County living on the South Shore."
Sandy flooded the sewage treatment plant, which began operating in 1949, with more than 9 feet of water. More than 100 million gallons of raw sewage flowed into area waterways. In the 44 days it took to fully restore operations, another 2.2 billion gallons of partially treated sewage flowed from the plant, which treats 50 million gallons of wastewater from roughly half a million Nassau residents daily.
In the years since, the county has completed dozens of federally funded projects to improve and harden plant operations, including an 18-foot wall around the facility and major changes to the electrical system and pumping stations.
Nassau County Executive Laura Curran said the denitrification system will protect residents from future storms, helping restore the region's natural ecosystem.
"That marshland needs to be strong because … it's a natural barrier for storm surge," Curran said. "We know we will have more storms and we want our marshland to be as strong as it possibly can be to protect the environment and to protect us as well."
The capstone of the plant's transformation, officials said, is the Bay Park Conveyance Project, which would route treated water from the facility through an abandoned 8-mile aqueduct located below Sunrise Highway to the Cedar Creek ocean outfall pipe, which extends three miles into the Atlantic Ocean. The $350 million project is scheduled to break ground early next year.
The Bay Park Water Reclamation Facility
* The East Rockaway plant opened in 1949 and treats 43% of Nassau's wastewater or 50 million gallons per day
* Bay Park, Nassau's largest sewage treatment facility, serves about 500,000 residents
* During superstorm Sandy, the plant flooded with 9 feet of water and more than 100 million gallons of raw sewage flowed into area waterways
* Federal officials responded by allocating $810 million to improve and harden the plant's operations
* Those funds include $19.6 million for a new Biological Nutrient Removal system that will remove 40% or 5,000 gallons of nitrogen from being discharged into Reynolds Channel
Source: Nassau County