The vast number of efforts put forth to prevent environmental decline in the Long Island Sound seem to have paid off, according to Mark Tedesco, director of the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Long Island Sound Office, who gave the Sound high marks for the decline in contaminants and proliferation of wildlife over the last two decades.
“The most important thing is we want to see lower levels of contaminants in wildlife, particularly in fish that we like to eat,” Tedesco said, noting decreasing levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in striped bass—the most popular recreational fish in the Sound—over the last 20 years.
PCBs—synthetic pollutants known to cause cancer in animals and believed to cause cancer in humans—and other heavy metals have decreased overall by 90 percent during that time period as well.
"The main cause of the decline in PCBs has been the ban on production passed in 1977," said Tedesco, adding that products from before that time containing PCBs—electrical capacitors or reservoirs in sediments—can still continue to leak PCB.
In addition to bass, Tedesco said, the EPA reported a decrease in the number of different contaminants in shellfish, like blue mussels.
Tedesco attributed these drastic decreases to more modern and effective pollution control activities as well as an effect of less industry operating in the area and spewing harmful chemicals into the Sound.
Another sign that the EPA is also seeing of an invigorated Sound is an increase in the number of osprey, seals, river otters and even pods of dolphins feeding in the water.
“After a trend of...increasing nitrogen pollution into the Long Island Sound, we’re now seeing a decrease,” Tedesco said, referring to an increase of the number of areas that support aquatic life.
Although nitrogen is not a toxic contaminant at normal levels, too much nitrogen can cause an overabundance of green plant life to grow. Hording all the available oxygen, the plants crowd out the aquatic life that could potentially survive in that area, turning it into a “dead zone,” said Tedesco.
The EPA’s plan is to reduce the amount of nitrogen in the Sound by 60 percent, an ambitious undertaking.
“The challenge of reducing nitrogen is a large one. . . it can be very expensive,” Tedesco warned. This plan also entails upgrading Waste Water Treatment Plants (WWTP) for the long term, by 2014.
Thomas Lauro, commissioner of the Westchester County Department of Environmental Facilities (DEF) projected the costs for the proposed WWTP upgrades.
The DEF operates the county’s system of seven sewage treatment plants—one of which is located in Mamaroneck, with another as close as New Rochelle—and is currently in the process of installing water quality upgrades at these facilities.
The purpose of the New Rochelle WWTP upgrade is to improve “existing treatment processes to enhance performance and reliability,” according to Lauro.
The cost for the upgrade is projected at $121.8 million, with a completion date of December 12, 2013.
“The upgrades are part in parcel to the nitrogen removal; they have to be done so that the plant operates effectively before it gets to the nitrogen removal process,” Lauro said.
The New Rochelle WWTP Biological Nutrient Removal Facilities Project also aims to reduce nitrogen and residual chlorine in water from the Sound.
This project’s projected cost is $112.1 million with a completion date of June 30, 2014. The Mamaroneck WWTP upgrades for nitrogen removal improvements will cost $33.2 million, and it scheduled to be completed at the end of next year.
As of 2011, roughly 1,040 acres of coastal habitat or 160 “river miles” of fish passage have been opened up in the Sound, said William Janeway, the regional director for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), along with 1,761 acres of coastal habitat now under state protection.
“It’s one thing to talk about progress, it’s a lot better to have real numbers quantifying the progress that we’ve made,” Janeway said.
New York State Senator Suzi Oppenheimer was equally supportive of the efforts to preserve the Sound.
“The health of the Long Island Sound is directly linked to the economic health of our region,” Oppenheimer said. “This is the most significant recreational resource in the area and we have to treat it with a lot of care.”
Editor's Note: An additional quote from Tedesco regarding PCBs has been added to a previous version of this article.