Suffolk County Tries to Take on Nitrogen Pollution Causing Algal Blooms In Its Waters

By Alex Bakirdan

As the season for algal blooms begins this May, Suffolk County is working to tackle the nitrogen pollution issue at its root.

Excess nutrients like nitrogen are one of the main causes of blooms, and septic systems have been leaching the element through wastewater into Suffolk County’s groundwater for decades according to the Peconic Estuary. Marine scientists say that the problem is only going to get worse unless it’s dealt with now.

“Rising sea levels are going to make this worse.” said Kevin McAllister, the founder of Defend H2O and former Long Island baykeeper. “In 40 years time many of these coastal septic systems will be sitting in groundwater.”

Algal blooms are an explosion of algal growth in a water body that can result from an excess of nitrogen and some blooms are dangerous to the health of humans and the ecosystem. More than 360,000 septic systems and cesspools in Suffolk County homes contribute to nearly 70 percent of the total nitrogen pollution load in Suffolk County. The systems are designed to treat waste for bacteria and viruses, but they don’t eliminate nitrogen from the wastewater that’s seeping into the ground.

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The nitrogen passes through the septic system, enters the groundwater through a series of perforated pipes called a leaching field and eventually seeps into  lakes, ponds, rivers and the ocean, where excessive levels lead to harmful algal blooms (HABs).

Suffolk County’s Reclaim Our Water Initiative is working to replace the cesspools and septic systems with new Innovative Alternative (I/A) septic systems designed to treat the nitrogen. The I/A systems contain a new treatment unit that uses naturally occurring bacteria to reduce the nitrogen content in wastewater.

“The program is a grant program that features a county grant of up to $20,000, with a $10,000 base grant and two $5,000 incentives,” Justin Jobin, the Suffolk County Environmental Projects Manager, said. Jobin, who is the program manager for the Septic Improvement Program, spends much of his time going to different community events in places like East Islip and East Hampton to educate people on septic system replacements.

Part of the reason Suffolk County needed to implement the grant program is due to the cost of the newer systems.

“Thats really the main drawback of these I/A systems,” said Peter Lelakowski, a representative from sanitation company Norsic & Son. “They cost quite a lot of money to install.”

The county program helps homeowners to get rid of their basic cesspools or older model septic systems.

“Suffolk is in the midst of trying to phase out the existing cesspools that don’t treat anything at all,” Linda Perlow, an officer for the Long Island Liquid Waste Association (LILWA), said.

So far the county’s Septic Improvement Program, a program under the Reclaim Our Water Initiative, has installed 92 I/A systems and is awaiting 112 installations, Jobin said.

“[Suffolk County] really wants to cut down on the amount of nitrogen entering the environment,” Mike Perlow, another member of LILWA, said.   

Almost 70 percent of the nitrogen pollution can be attributed to the Long Island homes with septic systems or cesspools, according to the Suffolk County Government,.

“Nitrogen in the Long Island Sound contributes to excessive phytoplankton blooms, which are particularly troublesome in the summer months,” Matt Lyman, environmental analyst for the Long Island Sound Study, said.

These phytoplankton blooms, more commonly known as algal blooms, red tides, rust tides or brown tides, have been blooming all over the island, with increasing frequency in recent years. In late 2017, the MightyMan Montauk Triathlon, a race in Montauk, had to cancel the swim portion of the competition due to a harmful algal bloom in the water. Last year, the event was moved to Navy Beach because of the same issue.

In 2018, 23 separate harmful algal blooms were reported in locations all over Suffolk County, including Fort Pond in Montauk and in Lake Ronkonkoma. The bloom in Lake Ronkonkoma, which first began in early May of 2018, forced Suffolk County to close the largest lake on Long Island to swimmers and waders.

Some phytoplankton blooms produce bacteria that can be harmful to humans and animals by causing vomiting, diarrhea, skin irritation and other health issues. When produced the bacteria can accumulate in shellfish tissue as they eat the algae, making them dangerous for human consumption.

Algal blooms are also harmful to marine life and can potentially devastate entire marine populations. “About ten years ago there was a die off of diamondback terrapins in Tuttle’s Creek which is in Peconic Bay,” McAllister said. The terrapins had been eating mussels which were contaminated due to an algal bloom in the area.

The shellfish industry in Accabonac Harbor once thrived, supporting entire families. Now the industry is dwindling, with large swaths of water entirely closed to shellfishing.

“All along the southern part of the harbor, acres are closed to shellfishing because of the nitrogen pollution,” Francesca Rheannon, president of Accabonac Protection Committee, said.

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) closed several large sections of the harbor for shellfishing and expanded the closed areas by 20 acres in 2015.

“As [the blooms] die and decompose they sink to the bottom which can lead to hypoxia in the water as well,” Lyman said. Hypoxia, which is when a body of water’s oxygen levels are low or depleted, can cause the death of fish, shellfish and other marine life and often prompts survivors to flee the area.

“Fifty years ago is when we really would’ve needed to get a grip on this,”  McAllister said. “I’ve been sounding the alarm on this since 2005 or six after what I saw at the Forge River with the rust tide and they’re finally starting to do something about it.”

“The first hurdle we had to get over was just getting people to understand that they actually needed to get their septic systems pumped,” Kate Rossi-Snook, environmental advocate for Concerned Citizens for Montauk, said. “People, some who had owned their homes for seventeen years, had never had their systems pumped. The systems are supposed to be pumped once every three to five years.”

Although not many residents know they need to replace their septic system, the program is still plenty popular.

“We’re currently getting about 60 applications per month,” Jobin said. “Our capacity is about 80 per month so we’re not trying to advertise too much right now.”

The program originally only had access to $2 million per year, which would have added up to about 200 grants. But the New York State Environmental Facilities Corporation (EFC) stepped in to make more money available for eligible citizens, Jobin said.  

“The state made available ten million per year out of the 15 million per year for the whole state,” Jobin said. “Once we received the state money we made changes to the eligibility restrictions. That went into effect in January of this year.”

Applications are prioritized based on the home’s proximity to groundwater reservoirs, with houses within zero to two years of travel time from leach field to surface water receiving the highest priority.

The entire process of replacing all of the systems in the county could take twenty years or more if the county fully committed to it today, Mcallister said.

“We’ve got real shit to deal with,” McAllister said.

Huntington High School Takes Steps to Fix Diversity Issue

By Alex Bakirdan and Isabelle Desilier

Huntington School District held a meeting with protestors on April 15th after the ban on the play Thoroughly Modern Millie in Huntington high school.

Huntington High School and Levittown High School’s showing of the play, Thoroughly Modern Millie, were protested April 9th and 13th by Asian American students, parents and community members due to racial undertones carried throughout the play, with the Huntington school district board banning the play days later.

During the meeting, superintendent James Polansky and art director Eric Reynolds spoke with Asian American protestors to discuss how to move on from the protest.

“I believe the steps for both sides to understand each other better took place,” Reynolds said, “We’re actively working to put the trust back into the high quality highly educational enriching experiences we always have and will continue to provide our students.”

A little under three dozen protestors gathered in front of the school speaking out against the racism in the play which emphasizes Chinese immigrant and citizen stereotypes. Some of the protestors held signs saying “Racism is not entertainment” and “say no to racist show.”

During the play, many attendees were seen getting up and leaving the play, while others commented on how rude they had been.

“There are apparently multiple perspectives on the theme and content of the play,” Polansky said. “All are committed to viewing this situation an educational opportunity – one that allows for open and productive discussion on any of the issues presented.   Unfortunately the timing of and manner in which the concerns were expressed casted a shadow on what should have been nothing short of a positive and enjoyable experience for everyone involved – directors, cast, crew and audience members included.”

The meeting had students and family members who attended the play praising the students and their performance.

“The plot of the musical is historically fallacious and unjustifiably depicts Asians in the most horrible light,” Notes sent to the to district superintendents, supervisors, and county executives members of the Long Island Chinese American Association group said. “Laughter at an ethnic group’s expense is not an art form; racism on stage is not entertainment.”

Many of the protestors had not spoken out about the actors or the school, but rather the play itself and what it represents.

“I think it’s very inappropriate,” Linda Zhang, mother of one of the students in the audience, said. “We need to raise more awareness. The school districts need more diversity training and cultural sensitivity.”

Zhang posted her son’s, Nick Lui, op-ed about the play to a public chat where Mimi Hu found the story.

“I think it’s better,” Hu said. “For it to have been a student, an eighth grader, to speak out against the play- because it’s not an adult attacking the students. It’s a second generation kid who wrote this, who spoke out about it.”

“It’s really about Chinese people or Asian people being taken and turned into stereotypes just to serve the purpose of laughs or jokes or some part of a story,” Jonathan Yuen, Asian American and Long Island resident, said, “It’s kind of like a holdover from past times.”

This has been changing slowly over time and movies like Crazy Rich Asians and Black Panther have been cited as milestone movies for the industry with their casts being majority minority actors. Shang-Chi is just one example of this, a upcoming Marvel superhero movie with an Asian lead, an Asian director and an Asian writer.

“Hollywood is kind of starting to realize that diversity sells and that people want to see themselves on screen,” Yuen said, “And that there is a strength and a comfort in seeing people like you be out there and be represented.”  

Jobs In Personal Training Are On The Rise On Long Island

By Alex Bakirdan and Jacob Alvear

Inside an unassuming blue steel and gray brick building in Holbrook, metal weight sets clang together as they’re assembled, floors of concrete are being poured and a new set of stairs is being installed as Nicholas Page remodels the gym where he will run his new personal training business.

Page’s company, The Trainer Page, is a part of the increasing interest in fitness in New York state as the fitness trainer industry’s job industry grows at a rate seven percent faster than the state’s average job’s growth rate?, according to the New York State Department of Labor.

“[The demand] is definitely rising,” Page said. “Especially, if you look at in America the obesity rates are increasing.”

Nassau and Suffolk counties in particular have above-average opportunities in the field according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, with the area having a higher employment concentration and overall share of employment than the state average.

“People seek out personal training because they’re used to not seeing results,” Robert Woods, the owner of CrossFit 631 Red Woods and the Long Island Barbell Club said. “They’re used to going to a regular gym and its March, April, May, June and they look the same.”

After losing motivation to go the gym because he wasn’t seeing the results he wanted, Vincent Fittipaldi started going to a personal trainer. In Nassau County, 56.8 percent of adults are overweight or obese. In Suffolk County,  the number is 63.8 percent. Fittipaldi started training with Page hoping to lose weight and get in better shape.

“I lost 53 pounds after 5 months and went down six waist sizes,” Fittipaldi said.

At his CrossFit gym class sizes are deliberately limited to give more individual focus on clients Woods said. He also does some one-on-one personal training sessions.

The Trainer Page is getting a Styku 3D Body Scanner in the hopes of helping people visually see their results. Page said, his organization will be the only personal trainer company on Long Island to have the machine.

Just because some people are using personal trainers doesn’t mean that everyone is ditching their regular gym however. Michael Bellofatto, an experienced lifter who goes to LA Fitness in Centereach, prefers to train on his own.

“The reason I prefer to go to an actual gym over a personal fitness trainer is because I have been working out for over four years now and know hundreds of exercises so I like to get creative and workout my own way.” Bellofatto said.

Personal trainers can “get a little pricey” Bellofatto also added. While cheaper trainers on Long Island run $35-$45 an hour, prices can get incredibly steep with some trainers charging upwards of $200 an hour.

The price of fitness is a concern that Page acknowledged as well, one that he thinks causes people to sometimes elect not to choose a personal trainer.

“Money is involved, it does get expensive and these people who think they’re absolute experts want all this money for training so [people] go to these giant boot camps where they don’t feel comfortable.” Page said.

Despite prices, the amount of fitness trainers in New York is projected to increase by 19% from 2016 to 2026. “Personal training was definitely worth the cost,” Fittipaldi said. “I paid for all five months out of pocket.”

Long Island Community Members Join Forces To Eradicate Trash From Beaches

By Alex Bakirdan and Vaidik Trivedi

Over 50 miles from home battling bone-chilling winds on a Sunday morning, 52-year-old Joseph Consoli digs soda cans out of the white sand.

He drags a garbage bag with him, struggling to walk straight, and fills it with waste: plastic plates, soda cans, tissues, condoms.

“It’s like you can scan garbage in the sand now,” Consoli, said as he dug out a plastic bottle. “You will be surprised by what we find.”

The Riverhead Foundation For Marine Research And Preservation (RFMRP) held ‘Pick It Up,’ a coastal cleanup, on 17th March at Fire Island National Seashore. Four volunteers picked up more than 10 pounds of garbage that day.

Since it started in 1996, RFMRP has rescued and rehabilitated more than 3,900 marine creatures throughout Long Island.

A part of ‘The Pick It Up Initiative To Eradicate Debris From Long Island Beaches,’ the beach cleanup initiative was started in 2016 by The Riverhead Foundation For Marine Research And Preservation. More than 1,300 volunteers like Consoli collect trash along the coastal line to preserve local wildlife.

“Eight out of ten times, you are going to end up digging garbage on your treasure hunt on the beach,” Consoli, said.

Every first Saturday of the month, no matter the weather, a few volunteers get together to collect garbage that poses a threat to the marine ecosystem, turtles and sea lions. In the past two years, the “Pick it Up” initiative saved almost 700 sea turtles on the island, Nicole Valenti Education & Volunteer Coordinator at Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation said.

“The aim of the initiative is to help eradicate marine debris from some of our local coastal areas,” Valenti said. “In the last three years we have averaged about 4,000 pounds of trash collected each year.”

Marine debris poses a huge danger to the environment. Each year, 100,000 marine creatures die from plastic ingestion or entanglement according to the Ocean Crusader Organization.

“Seabirds (like cormorants) are often found with plastic in their stomachs because the plastic adsorbs the smells of the ocean,” Nick Wehner, Director of Open Initiatives at Open Communications for The Ocean, said. “When the plastic bits smell like fish, critters tend to think ‘if it smells like a fish, it must be a fish,’ and they eat it.”

Microplastics have even started to appear in the seafood that humans eat, as a study published in Environmental Pollution found that both mussels and oysters had a significant amount in their systems too. The study was unable to estimate potential risks to human health thus far.

“We are the only organization that is allowed on Long Island to rescue, relocate and rehabilitate marine animals,” Jonathan Yankus, 15, a member of the RFMRP said.

He and his mother managed to pick up 260 pounds of garbage along with clocking in 780 hours of beach cleanup last year alone.

“We are doing a lot of wrong with this planet,” Yankus, said. “If everyone does just a little bit [disposing of garbage] each day, then we might be able to live on this plane a bit longer.”

Depending on how many volunteers shown up, RFMRP members invest upto two hours into beach cleanup despite harsh weather conditions.  

“We feel like superheros after filling bags with garbage,” Consoli said while struggling to walk in 22 mph cold winds. “I feel satisfied after watching the beach clean for other people to use.”

RFMRP urges community members to join the ‘Pick It Up,’ initiative to clean the five most garbage prone beaches on Long Island.

“I think it really brings a lot of community members together in just trying to help create something better for our beaches,” Valenti said. “We live on Long Island we are an island, we are surrounded by water and so I think everyone really likes to enjoy the beach and nobody wants to go to the beach if it’s covered in garbage.”

In October 2018, the Trump Administration passed the ‘Save Our Seas Act,’ which will help confront the marine debris crisis by granting more funds to assist with marine cleanup and reauthorizing Marine Debris Programs through 2022.

Libraries on Long Island seek certified ‘green’ status

By Zoya Naqvi and Alex Bakirdan

Eight public libraries are close to to achieving Green Business Certification after the Lindenhurst Memorial Library became the first on Long Island and third in the state to be certified.

The certification, which is given by Green Business Partnership, is a way for libraries to reduce their environmental impact in the community. During the first phase of the two-part program, libraries focus on becoming sustainable in all aspects from recycling books to adding a garden.

“People want to go to businesses and places that are more sustainable,” Ethan Kravitz, director of membership at Green Business Partnership, said.

To become certified, each library must undergo strict changes in seven different categories — commitment, energy, waste and recycling, green purchasing, transportation, land use, and water. The nonprofit monitors their progress using an online dashboard.

Within one year, the Lindenhurst library board recycled furniture and 40,000 books, reduced electricity use by 30 percent, cut down 60 percent of plastic and cardboard waste, and prevented pollution by carpooling or walking to work.

“It’s not unique to them [libraries] that they’re recycling books, but now they have to say how many and how often,” Roger Reyes, assistant director of the Suffolk Cooperative Library System, said. “Other things they weren’t doing before are now put on paper and indoctrinating how they do certain things.”

Over the past few years, the words “green marketing” lead to more than a million hits on Google, according to the International Federation of Library Associations

The Suffolk Cooperative Library System runs the second part of the program, focused on improving social services like accepting passport applications and providing free internet connections. Throughout March, staff members from Lindenhurst will host events that educate residents about environmental friendly changes.

The events cover a range of topics, from fixing leaky faucets that waste water to cutting down the emission of greenhouse gasses by avoiding plastic-packaged meat. They will also create a prom pop-up shop where teens can get recycled suits and dresses for free.

“We’re going to do discussions that give people ways where they can reduce their carbon footprint in the community,” Lisa Kropp, Lindenhurst library director, said. “It’s like this trickle effect of more and more people getting involved.”

For some libraries, completing social goals depends on their size and location.

Shelter Island Public Library, one of the eight volunteers, has nine full-time employees and serves a community of 2,500 people, whereas Brentwood Public Library has 90 full-time employees and serves a community of 100,000.

“It’s not one size fits all,” Reyes said. “Some of them can do one thing better than the others, but over the years you work together to get those things done.”

The South Huntington Public Library has created a strict environmental policy to ban staff from using paper, plastic utensils, cleaning products, disposable cups and paper.

For libraries, sustainability is threefold, Janet Scherer, Director of South Huntington, said.

“It [the policy] includes the environmental piece, but we also strive to be socially equitable and economically sound,” Scherer said.

Suffolk County Community College Plans to Build New Environmental STEM Center

By Alex Bakirdan and Pedro Rodrigues

Suffolk County Community College (SCCC), the largest community college in the SUNY system, is planning a new clean energy STEM Center on its Ammerman Campus in the spring of 2019.

SCCC won one million dollars for their clean energy initiatives in 2018 and look to put it toward their new STEM Center. Along with the new energy center, SCCC is looking to implement a curriculum for a new sustainability program.

“Now a lot of our sustainability is more like the administration side of things and we don’t have any classes along with what we are doing. With the new renewable energy and STEM Center we are developing a curriculum to go along with it,” Melanie Morris said, the Assistant Director of Sustainability at Suffolk County College Said.

So far, SCCC has implemented 12 vehicle charging stations on its Ammerman Campus that are free of cost for students.

“We are looking to install eight more on each campus, and looking for different financial opportunity for those,” Morris said.

SCCC students aren’t necessarily excited about the installations however. “I’m pretty sure there’s a negligible amount of people in America, let alone college students that have rechargeable cars.” Kevin Okula a student at SCCC said, “To install them now when the technology isn’t as cheap as it will be in the future doesn’t seem feasible.”

Since 2015, SCCC has saved more than three million dollars in energy savings, according to the community college sustainability website. The college hopes to reach four million dollars in savings by the end of 2019.

During the 2019 SUNY State of the University Address on January 31st, Chancellor Kristina M. Johnson announced SUNY is launching a Green Revolving Fund in 2019 in an effort to increase SUNY universities’ sustainability.

The fund will “help campuses finance investments in energy conservation, energy efficiency and renewable energy with loans to be repaid by the energy cost savings,” Johnson said.

SUNY is taking these actions to reduce operating costs and comply with Executive Order 88, issued by Governor Cuomo in 2012. It mandated energy efficiency of all state owned and managed buildings must be improved by 20 percent by 2020.

SUNY announced they will use the Green Revolving Fund to remodel old buildings to improve their environmental rating. “We also intend to retrofit our existing buildings, with SUNY Oneonta blazing the trail with its zero-net carbon renovation of its Ford Hall Residence,” Johnson said.

SCCC hopes to be a part of SUNY’s Green Revolving Fund and the college “just had a meeting about [the Green Revolving Fund] last week,” Morris said.

“We are definitely looking to get involved,” Morris said.”We are always looking for new  commitments, new partnerships and news ways to kind of get to those goals.”

Other SUNY schools like Farmingdale have also been tackling energy consumption for a while already. Farmingdale’s solar carport which was built in 2013 saved the university $6,500 dollars in the first 12 weeks of operation.

Students like Nicholas Stone, a business major at Farmingdale State College, view these efforts as important. “ The new generation has to find new ways of  improving the environment. We cannot continue to let the earth rot ,” Stone said.

By 2020, SUNY’s goal is to cut non-renewable energy consumption by 30% but only time will tell if SUNY can reach that goal.

Growing Long Island Art Market Sees New Businesses Enter Fray

By Alex Bakirdan and Josh Spitz

The Shelf, an artisan store in downtown Port Jefferson, will open in mid-April and will be selling the art of 32 local artists and entrepreneurs after originally planning to hold twenty artists.

It took store owner Diana Walker less than 60 days to find the 32 artists looking to sell their work.

These artists face several difficulties that come with being in a mass-produced economy, Jasmine Scarlatos, a St. James-based artisan, said.

“A big problem with getting noticed is basic supply and demand,” Scarlatos said. “In theory, it’s not the industry. But their consumers generally don’t want to pay for artisan-made goods.”

The Long Island art market is difficult for young new artists to break into, with many having difficulty finding places to sell their work. “You can [sell] A piece, you find if you work really hard,” Diana Walker, owner of The Shelf, said.

Many art events on Long Island, such as the Art Walk that takes place in May in St. James, require an entry fee of $25 to $50, sometimes even more. The fee comes with no guarantee that the artist will actually sell their work.

The art market is growing, Judith Leavy, Executive Director of Gallery North in Setauket said. But, there are still not many options for artists to showcase and sell their work.

“I would say that there are a limited number of options right now, however we’ve recognized that and we have made efforts to change that,” Leavy said.

The main goal of the store, Walker said, is to give opportunity and space to young artists at a time where their work might be overlooked. The plan is to have a “revolving contract.” Every 90 days, the inventory in the store will be cycled to give time and space to each artist.

Rather than having the contract connected to the artist, it will be connected to the inventory. This means that artists will write a new contract with the store every time their inventory sells out.  

Not paying for art has become so common that a subgroup on the website reddit, called /r/choosingbeggars makes fun of stingy consumers reluctant to pay for goods or services.

“If it’s online a lot of the time [the customer] will be very agreeable at first and then when it comes time to pay they’ll delay payment or they’ll say ‘do you think it’s really worth THAT much?’ Even if you’ve lowballed it a bit to begin with,” Morgan Richard, another Long Island-based artist involved with The Shelf, said.

Scarlatos and Richard are not the only artists interested in the store’s business model, which originally planned to showcase 20 artists upon opening. Walker said that she will find a way to display all those who are interested.

The art business and consumers have become obsessed with the “traditional,” Walker said.

“Most places don’t want the current-day creative minds,” she said. “They want the picture of the sailboat, or the picture of the sunflower.”

That’s why artists like Scarlatos are struggling to find ways to get their art noticed and purchased. She says that consumers are weighing the difference between quality and price, and in most cases, they decide that lower prices are more important than higher quality art.

But, Scarlatos says, she does not necessarily disagree with the consumer’s point of view.

“It’s less the industry’s fault, and more that of consumers who are willing to sacrifice quality for price. And I can’t blame them.”