Pollution Lurks in 'Urban Sea' Nutrients from Sewage Flows Threaten Water Quality and Kill Fish; Experts Look for Solutions. LONG ISLAND SOUND

By Lucia Mouat, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, August 29, 1991 | Go to article overview

Pollution Lurks in 'Urban Sea' Nutrients from Sewage Flows Threaten Water Quality and Kill Fish; Experts Look for Solutions. LONG ISLAND SOUND


Lucia Mouat, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


THE waters of Long Island Sound look clear from this central part of the island where teens fish for small snapper. But looks do not always tell the full pollution story.

At the center of debate over the seriousness of pollution in the Sound are questions about the effect of the heavy supply of nutrients pouring into its western part - and what, if anything, should be done about them.

Their effect on low dissolved oxygen levels in deep water, a condition known as hypoxia, is the central focus so far in the massive, federally funded Long Island Sound Study (LISS), underway since 1985 and due to be completed next fall.

Sometimes called "the urban sea," Long Island Sound sits in the most densely populated region of the United States. Each day 1 billion gallons of treated sewage from plants in New York and Connecticut flow into the Sound. When rainfall is high and sewers overflow, raw sewage and rain water go in, too. Studies show problems

Many experts say that the added nitrogen from treated sewage can damage or kill fish and shellfish in bottom waters or force them to flee to areas where oxygen is more abundant. Hypoxia occurs naturally to some degree in summer as warm surface water forms a distinct layer over colder bottom water, and oxygen in surface water is prevented from replacing that used by marine life below. Added nutrients can speed up and intensify the oxygen loss by fueling the growth of single cell marine plants in surface waters. When the algae dies and drops to the bottom, it uses scarce oxygen there as it decomposes.

In an interim report issued late last year, the LISS, a study overseen by the US Environmental Protection Agency, urges that treatment plant discharges of nitrogen into the Sound be restricted to 1990 levels.

Environmentalists say the recommendation should include a timetable. "We think the process of capping nutrients should be started now so that we aren't continually increasing the amount of nitrogen that goes into the Sound," says Jane Moffat, coordinator of the Long Island Watershed Alliance. It is a coalition of 60 groups that grew out of a series of National Audubon Society hearings on the Sound last year.

"We should at least keep the situation from getting any worse," agrees Jeff Kane, program coordinator of the Citizens Campaign for the Environment and a member of the LISS Citizens Advisory Committee. Yet he says the study has spent too much time, money, and energy on hypoxia and not enough on other pollutants such as toxic chemicals and pathogens.

Other recent studies confirm that such problems exist. A National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration study of coastal waters found chemical contamination declining in many areas but still serious in urban areas such as the Western Sound. A recent Natural Resources Defense Council report claims the coastal waters of New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey have the worst bacterial contamination problem in the US, due largely to outdated sewage treatment systems.

LISS officials insist that other pollution problems will be studied before the final report is issued.

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