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Village Board Defends Intentions Regarding Sewage Treatment Facility

Residents wanted clearer statements on the board's position on the water quality in Northport Harbor, while the trustees accused the residents of jumping to conclusions.

Northport Village trustees came under fire Tuesday as they fielded questions from area residents over its treatment of water-quality issues in Northport Harbor.

The board spent over half an hour defending its record regarding issues surrounding upgrades at the Northport  after two Town of Huntington residents questioned their true intentions regarding the upgrades and requested defined plans for the proposed upgrades.

The boardmembers cited significant steps taken to combat the issue since their terms started in 2006. They noted that they spent $80,000 on improvements and repairs to the infrastructure associated with water treatment, and also noted their central role in the Northport Harbor Water Quality Committee, formed by the Town of Huntington Supervisor Frank Petrone and U.S. Rep. Steve Israel, D-Huntington, last year.

"The idea that this village, or this Board of Trustees, is not concerned about water and water quality, and one of the main factors that makes our life here wonderful, is a complete misrepresentation," said deputy mayor Henry Tobin. "We’ve probably spent more time on water issues than everything else combined. If anyone’s under the misapprehension that that’s how we feel, let’s clear up that misrepresentation and miscomprehension."

Tobin's comments were in response to an inquiry from Centerport resident Peter Hefter, who wanted the board to issue an official position paper stating what the board was doing to combat the effluence from the sewage treatment. Tobin said that such a document was too simplistic of an approach, as the board does not have a straight answer on what is causing elevated nitrogen levels in Northport Bay.

Much of the controversy stems from research released by Dr. Christopher Gobler of Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Science (SoMAS). He had been examining one type of algal blooms in Northport Harbor since 2008 when he reportedly found a second type of harmful algae never seen before at these levels in New York State. That's according to a Youtube.com video released by the Stony Brook SeaGrant project and attached to this article.

This algae, Dinophysis acuminata, produces a toxin that can cause stomach illness. There’s no hard data on what causes it to grow but, according to the SeaGrant video but it often occurs the waters that have a high algae levels. However, Gobler hasn’t found conclusive evidence yet and Northport's waters have been closed to fishing for decades. Without it, the board is unwilling to commit to a treatment.

“To start assuming that we know, and what needs to be done on the nitrogen part of it, is premature,” he said. “The technology is not really there. If we go off and do efforts aimed at our guesses, we could really miss the big target.”

The board used the same rationale to explain their reluctance to accept a potential $9 million loan from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation for upgrades from the sewage treatment plant. “We will not accept $9 million for something that will not work,” said Mayor George Doll, a lobsterman and conch fisherman by trade.

The loan is far from a certainty at this point to begin with, as the village is currently below the EFC’s cutoff point in terms of projects it is willing to loan money to by one or two spots. The village cannot accept the loan either until they use a $1.3 million grant from the NYS Water Quality Improvement Project to get the plant up to nitrogen standards set forth by the DEC (to be completed by 2014). That portion of the upgrade is on hold until the nitrogen levels were figured out.

The public hearing, while mostly civil, was not without tense moments. After Brian Whitehead, a Huntington resident representing the local organization Save Our Harbors, persistently asked for a definitive answer about whether the board exceeded a 2009 nitrogen limit instituted by the DEC (the board’s official response was “not that we know of”, which didn’t represent a “no”), Trustee Thomas Kehoe responded by attacking Whitehead for comments on the group’s Facebook page. The comments, according to Kehoe, singled out the sewage treatment plant as the sole pollutant.

“Your group has tried to paint us in a pretty ugly light,” said Kehoe. “[Saying that] Northport Village is polluting the bay is dishonest. Some of the statements from your group are more than disingenuous.”

When given time to respond, Whitehead denied that he was solely accusing the Northport plant. He said that he didn’t feel the plant measured up to the standards it was supposed to, while a Huntington plant did so. Trustee Damon McMullen countered by saying that the Northport plant has stricter standards to meet as a result of the Village’s good care of the plant over the years.

The village is in the middle of a dilemma in how to comply with the nitrogen levels set by the DEC by 2014. They have two options: One, to cut certain properties out of the system, doesn’t seem viable, because, as Village Attorney James Matthews asked semi-rhetorically, “Where would they go?” The other option is to add more properties to the system, which would result in less nitrogen going into the harbor through independent cesspools.

One thing that’s clear is that the situation will not be resolved with the status quo. Kehoe told Hefter that he understands the frustration of the residents, but that the board has no choice but to continue on its current path.

“This is a complicated problem,” he said. “There’s justifiable frustration on the part of the public. We understand that. We’ve put countless hours in, and we want to solve this problem. We’re going to do our part to help get it solved.”

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