An odd phenomenon occurs yearly at . Nearly every summer, the Suffolk County Department of Health goes through a cycle of closing and reopening the village-owned beach due to unsafe levels of bacteria, while adjoining remains disproportionately unaffected. The two bodies of water share no real boundary – so what gives?
"Historically, we seem to be closing one, and not the other, and that's only because of the samples we get back," said Health Department Spokesperson Grace Kelly McGovern.
Steers Beach has been closed three times this summer for unsafe levels of enterococci bacteria, one of two types of bacteria tested for, while Asharoken Beach has been closed once. No one seems to be able to make heads or tails of the results.
"If you have a swimming pool, is just half of it polluted?" asked Northport Commissioner of Waterways Damon McMullen. McMullen said he wants a better explanation of the results from the County, and has asked for exact locations of test samples as well as conditions at the time of testing.
"The County so far has not been able to explain why there is a difference between the two beaches that are side by side and/or their methodology in how, where, and what time of day as related to currents and tides in the affected area they collect their samples," he wrote in an email to Patch.
McMullen named a broken outflow pipe on the northern border and a storm drain pipe on the southern border as possible sources of the bacteria.
"The northern pipe belongs to Huntington Township and has been broken for quite some time. If that were repaired, the stormwater would drain an additional forty feet out into the harbor. This might change the sample results...The southern storm drain pipe is on the south border of Steers Beach. This pipe is feed by all the storm water from the Steers pit residential area. There normally is not a problem with the bacteria counts from these areas."
The Town said that they would look at the pipe and added that it is not likely to be the culript.
"The run-off from the catch basin captures water from the top of the hill (near the entrance to Soundview) extending along Eaton's Neck Road down the hill. This stretch of road is mostly undeveloped woods, and seldom used by pedestrians so you wouldn't expect lawn chemicals or dog droppings (the main sources of the pollution that result in the beach closures) as found in storm water from developed streets," said Town Spokesperson AJ Carter. "Non-point source run off from the populated areas triggered by heavy rainfalls is the most likely culprit, not an alleged crack in the pipe."
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Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment and member of the Northport Harbor Water Quality Protection Committee, said that the elevated bacteria levels could be caused by anything from goose droppings to untreated sewage from illicit hookups into the stormwater system.
Animal droppings could be washed into the harbor during heavy rains and cause an uptick in bacteria levels, though a number of the closures have occurred during periods of dry weather.
"Enterococci is the most common bacteria and it's associated with human and animal waste," she said. "What they could do is test to see if it's human or animal and that clarification gives a strong indicator as to where it could be coming from."
McMullen said that there are no illicit hookups to the stormwater system to the best of his knowledge. When asked if the Village is seeking funding to find the source, McMullen replied, "We've tried to get funding from the state for various projects and everyone keeps saying they have no money. We're in the middle of trying to get money from the County or State to put toward the sewer treatment plant."
Esposito said that addressing high bacteria levels could help lower nitrogen levels in the harbor that lead to excessive toxic algal blooms such as Red Tide.
"The bacteria associated with the beach closing could be contributing to the Nitrogen as well because the waste water that's carrying the bacteria also carries the nitrogen. By eliminating the source, you would definitely address both problems – bacteria and nitrogen loading," said Esposito.
Individuals can help curb the bacteria boom by picking up after pets, regularly pumping out cesspools and septic tanks, and reporting illegal hookups into the stormwater system to authorities.