As the attempts to reduce its nitrogen emission levels to those required by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s 2014 levels, the plant and the Village have come under fire from community groups, who feel that the plant is not doing enough to meet those standards.
Plant manager Erica Reinhard, now in her final month on the job after 33 years working there, provided a simple explanation for the criticism. “We just happen to be a very easy target,” she said of the building located at Scudder Park in the village. “[The plant] doesn’t move around, so it’s easy to pick it out.”
Despite an upgrade in 2006, the Northport Wastewater Treatment Plant needs further upgrades to meet nitrogen standards for 2014.
Currently, the plant produces 19 pounds of nitrogen per day, which is already a fairly low number, Reinhard said. She added that the DEC didn’t take this number into account when they set their 2014 levels, choosing instead to lower every sewage plant dumping into the sound by the same percentage across the board.
In order to be compliant with the targeted level of nitrogen set by the DEC’s 2014 nitrogen-emission plan, the Northport sewage plant needs to produce only 10 pounds of nitrogen per day, something Reinhard said is impossible with the current technology.
With that in mind, Reinhard issued a simple request to those who are critical: Make an attempt to understand our job before you make a statement about the plant.
“We do this for a living,” she said. "A lot of people just talk about it. They just say. ‘Obviously you’re not just doing your job’. Well, maybe you don’t even know what my job is.”
Numbers and accusations related to the plant’s operation and This interview was a chance for Reinhard, who has had more experience working at the plant than anyone, to provide her own explanation and propose her own solution.
Caught Up in the Math
The plant can install denitrification filters, but they will only be able to reduce the levels of nitrogen emission to somewhere between 12 and 14 pounds a day, still 20 to 40 percent higher than that magic 10 pound-number.
“Being that we were running way down, if you take the same percentage away from this plant here as you do across the board, and there’s almost nothing left,” she said. “Whereas if you’re coming in with a high percentage, and you take off so much, you still have a lot of room. So we got caught up in the math.”
“When they cut us, they cut us off at the knees,” she added. “You’re sticking me in a room full of straw and telling me to spin it into gold. Well now I’m stuck in a room and I can’t do anything.”
Reinhard understands that there is some public frustration over the pace of the project. “I will agree, the progress is very slow, and I wish it was faster,” she said. “I want this plant to be the best it can be. But I’m just a person who operates this place.”
Part of the problem involves money. Reinhard estimates that installing denitrification filters will take between $3 and $4 million to complete. A total plant upgrade will likely cost between $9 million and $14 million, depending on technology available at the time the project commences, said the DEC's Leung.
The Village has a , with the status of . Without a better technology in place to get down to the current levels, though, the Village is reluctant to borrow the money.
Cesspools Filter Fecal Matter, Not Nitrogen
Reinhard also critical of some of the Centerport residents who are protesting the slow process that the plant is taking to upgrade, pointing out that runoff from cesspools in Centerport contribute to the nitrogen in the harbor as well.
“I’ve yet to hear any proposals on fixing their cesspools,” she said. “Have you ever been to Centerport Yacht Club? The road going down there, you could put a ski lift in, it’s that steep. What do you think happens when it rains? The cesspools are doing exactly what they’re designed to do, filter out the fecal matter. They don’t do anything about the nitrogen. So the nitrogen seeps down and eventually gets in. The Centerport people have to acknowledge their part in this problem, and they don’t want to do that.”
“We’re a convenient target,” she reiterated. “You might as well paint a big bull’s-eye on this place. But when people point fingers, there’s three pointing back at them.”
In terms of the nitrogen levels at the plant, Reinhard thinks that the DEC should re-evaluate the limit it’s set, to get a number that’s more realistic. “And let’s get realistic numbers this time about nitrogen,” she added. “From what I’m hearing, I think [12-14] is doable. I think it’s realistic. What angers me is that people are not looking at this issue realistically. They’re either one extreme or the other. But there is a happy medium. We’ve just got to get to it.”
End of an Era
Reinhard herself will not be around when the 2014 upgrades finally go in. After 33 years working at the plant, she will retire on May 27, when she will take care of a husband who just lost a leg to diabetes.
“He’s in the process of recovering, getting measured for a prosthetic leg, which is part of the reason I’m retiring,” she said. “We’re planning to fix up the house, and in a year or to, sell it and move out to New Mexico.”
Reinhard is a second-generation manager of the plant, as her father ran it for several decades before her. She graduated from Northport High School in 1973 and began working in the village's highway department for three years until a position became available at the plant.
When she announced her retirement, she received accolades from many in the community, including Mayor George Doll, who .
Once she retires, the plant will move into the hands of Jack Sammis, who’s worked with Reinhard for over twenty years. He will inherit the task of getting the plant in line with the 2014 limits.
While Reinhard is still there, however, she wants the public to understand that the workers at the plant have the best interests of the community in mind.
“We do the best with what we got,” she said. “We yell and scream because we want this plant to work. We’re not here to see it fail. We take things personally down here.”
Monday, Patch contributor Justin Izzo reports on a tour of the Northport Sewage Treatment Plant. (An earlier version of this story said the story would run Thursday.)