Thousands of fish and hundreds of turtles in the Long Island Sound died of nitrogen pollution last summer, just before the federal government decided to crack down on water quality standards.
U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy joined Sound School teachers, students, and local environmental activists Thursday at a roundtable in the South Water Street school to discuss what happens next. He asked for suggestions about how to implement the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) new plan to curb excessive nitrogen levels in the Long Island Sound.
Excessive nitrogen is caused in part by pollution from sewage treatment plants, fertilizers, and pesticides.
“My intent here really is more to listen ... I’d like to leave here a little bit smarter on how I can be your advocate in Washington before the EPA to make sure that we fully implement successfully this new nitrogen strategy,” Murphy said.
Last year, several grassroots environmental organizations filed a petition pushing the agency to crack down on nitrogen levels that exceed federal standards. They requested the EPA set an updated maximum level of nitrogen to ensure healthy water quality of the Sound and establish an implementation and accountability program for states that drain to the Sound by June 15, 2016. They also asked that the EPA use its authority to cut nitrogen from local sources, including septic systems, sewer pipes and urban stormwater.
Recently, the EPA put out its plan that incorporated some of the petition’s requests, including helping states develop new water quality standards and maximum daily nitrogen levels of their waters.
University of Connecticut Professor James O’Donnell explained Thursday that high nitrogen levels causes plants such as algae in the water to grow too rapidly, leading to hypoxia, or a decrease in oxygen for the rest of the aquatic ecosystem.
After years of “careless discharge of pollutants, nitrogen included, into the Sound, we have screwed it up,” Murphy said. Though officials and advocates have made progress over time at reducing pollution at wastewater treatment facilities that wash into the Sound, “we still have a lot of work to do,” he said.
Last summer, Connecticut’s waters still saw major fish kills, turtle die-offs and closed beaches—because of unstable water quality.
The Sound is a “multibillion-dollar economic driver for Connecticut,” he said, with many industries that still rely on it. “We can make sure the norm does not become the reality here in Connecticut.”
More than 100 terrafin turtles and tens of thousands of fish died in the Sound last summer because of nitrogen pollution, said Roger Reynolds, legal director for Save the Sound. “The Long Island Sound is very much under stress,” he said.
The EPA’s nitrogen strategy is not enforceable, as activists had asked for, but it is a “great start,” Reynolds said.
The plan includes acknowledging the extent of the pollution and understanding its exact sources, he said.
“The issue of doing something about the vast lawns in Connecticut and the fertilizers and pesticides on them, particularly on the Sound coming down to the water seems like something that could be improved,” said Margaret Miner, executive director of the Rivers Alliance of Connecticut. “It would take more advocacy than money to get done.”
In Connecticut, lawns and estates are “more of a problem than agriculture,” she said.
How do we figure out how much waste comes from what source in the Sound? Murphy said.
The EPA’s agenda includes refining those numbers, O’Donnell said. It surveys about 30 locations on the Sound every two weeks in the summer and every month in the year. “That’s the best data there is,” he said. The goal should be to fill in the blank spots, including the amount of nitrogen from septic plants.
One Sound student, Julian Driebeek, managed to get a question in among the experts: “When it comes to the fertilizers from our farms and our vast lawns, there are other elements that need to be focused on like potassium and phosphorus,” he said. “How is the EPA looking at those elements in addition to nitrogen?”
Phosphorus is starting to emerge as an issue, since it can play a role in stimulating plant growth, which could lead to reduced oxygen, Miner responded. But the EPA is not addressing phosphorus in this plan.
“In Middlesex County, Old Saybrook ... has been leveraging private money in helping homeowners upgrade their own septic systems,” said Samuel Gold, executive director of the River Council of Governments. Most of the waste treatment is privatized and homeowners ignore the fact that their systems are failing, so they don’t have to pay for the upgrade. Coordinated loan programs and grants are helping to outsource the treatment to those private homeowners, he said.
Localized differences exist that could prevent different regions from adopting the same models to clean up their waters, said Sandy Breslin, of the Rivers Alliance. “There may be additional regulatory flexibility or actually new regulatory powers we need to have…in order to drive some of these more innovative solutions” in specific areas, she said. “That is an area where we really will need your leadership and continued assistance,” especially after the EPA comes up with its plan.
“Is the regulatory power here in Hartford or Washington?” Murphy asked.
“That’s a good question,” Breslin said.
Murphy agreed that no one solution would fit all towns and that not all places had the same capacity to implement solutions to keep the water clean.
The regulatory cost of allowing for that flexibility will be less than the operational costs of the final solutions and the ultimate benefits of any plans, O’Donnell said.
Those solutions could lead to “enormous payoff,” Murphy said.