Monday, July 16, 2007

A Look at the Sound Cleanup, 20 Years Later

It was 20 years ago this month that Long Island Sound went through its worst period of hypoxia, with fish dying and a huge part of the western half of the Sound turned into a dead zone. The Stamford Advocate uses the anniversary to assess progress in the Sound cleanup, here.

The reporter, Tim Stelloh, does a good job summarizing the progress, or lack of it. He points out, for example, that $617 million has been spent and yet conditions in the far western end of the Sound are barely better than they were 20 years ago.

He quotes me as saying that it's critical to get New York City to complete its sewage treatment plant upgrades, but I think he does not pay enough attention overall to New York City's role. The city, after all, is responsible for a huge proportion of the nitrogen that causes hypoxia, and until it makes substantial improvements, dissolved oxygen concentrations aren't going to get a whole lot better. That's my opinion but it's based on what knowledgeable people involved in the cleanup have been saying for years. (And no one should infer that I think the city is not making progress.)

He also finds a number of people to say -- quite reasonably -- that fixing sewage plants and removing nitrogen will not be enough to restore the Sound. That's obviously true and it's why the Long Island Sound program has from the beginning included a habitat restoration component and the Long Island Sound stewardship component. But the story makes it seem as if the people he is quoting have a fundamental disagreement with the way the cleanup is being managed. I don't think that's true. When Robin Kriesberg of Save the Sound says there needs to be a more holistic approach, she's not implying that nitrogen removal is a flawed strategy. And the story does not point out that many of the people quoted are involved in the Long Island Sound cleanup program, which was set up partially as a way for experts to debate and challenge the cleanup strategies.

The story also gives way, way too much space and credence to Art Glowka. Art is a nice guy and has a long and illustrious history of effective environmental advocacy. But to give substantial space in the story to a non-scientist who claims that the Sound's problem is that it doesn't have enough nitrogen is really taking contrarianism to an unhelpful level. Glowka, for example, apparently thinks that New York City's role in the Sound's problems is negligible. The story describes him pointing to a map and asserting that at this point here, near Throgs Neck, the city's sewage stops and doesn't enter the Sound. It neglects to mention that 20 years of computer modeling indicate that the city's sewage has a substantial affect on the Sound. Nowhere does the story say, or quote anyone as saying, "We're glad Art is involved but the scientific consensus is that nitrogen is a problem and New York City is a significant contributor to it."

To the average reader some of that is inside baseball, though. There's lots of useful stuff in the story. Given what happened 20 years ago and all that has happened since, I hope it's just the first of many anniversary accounts.

I don't generally make a point of soliciting comments, but I'd be interested in hearing what people think about the various points of view in the story.

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Blogger Sam said...

I thought the newspaper article was actually pretty good - in spite of your wayward man there - and I enjoyed ready about what experts such as Mr. Tedesco had to say.

Nice plug for you too, Tom!

I don't have lots of facts and figures about the NY Department of Sanitation, but in the old days it had quite a reputation - mainly bad. I more am familiar with their now banned practice of hauling wastewater solids to the dumping grounds out on the Atlantic in tugboats and stinky barge scows.

That dumping ground, now called a Historical Area of Restoration (HARS) was noted for allowing needles and bacteria to cause Jones Beach to be closed.

But that's another story ... I'm sure your wayward individual there didn't have an appreciation about why those sewer outfalls were and probably still are such a dirty, stinking deal. /Sam

2:23 PM  

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