The explosion was heard three miles away.
More than 1 million gallons of toxic, disease-ridden sludge coated parts of the South Shore, flowing onto dozens of beaches in the densely populated area and closing more than 60, including popular Long Beach, Atlantic Beach, Hewlett, Lido and Point Lookout beaches. Three hundred Nassau County police officers, U.S Coast Guard officers and county public works officials had to be inoculated, along with countless others from the surrounding neighborhoods.
A 16-year-old boy from Island Park was killed. His 14-year-old friend survived just barely—the result of “dramatic rescue efforts” initiated by then-Hempstead Town Supervisor Alfonse D’Amato and John Ramberg, then-superintendent of the Bay Park Sewage Treatment Plant, according to a June 4, 1976 article in The New York Times.
Thirty-four years ago, two of Bay Park’s sludge storage tanks at Pearsalls Hassock—an island southeast of Hewlett Bay between Lawrence and Island Park—had blown to smithereens, violently rattling the homes of nearby communities and launching rescuers on a search in vain through the ensuing deadly sludge, several feet thick in some parts of the tiny island.
Sewage sludge produces methane gas, an odorless, explosive vapor. Witnesses, responders and local residents tell the Press the teenagers dropped fireworks into the tank, causing the devastation.
“When the tanks blew-up, the whole community shook,” recalls former Sen. D’Amato. “No one could have imagined that the storage of sludge in these tanks could be as dangerous as it was… Safety is critical.”
Methane was the same deadly fume blamed as having a role in the deaths of 29 West Virginian coal miners in April—despite that mine’s owner repeatedly being cited for problems with its ventilation system. The explosive gas is currently a major concern at the British Petroleum (BP) oil well disaster site in the Gulf of Mexico—the worst oil spill in U.S. history. Recently released documents and testimony from BP officials regarding the doomed Deepwater Horizon platform—which exploded and caused the gush that same month, killing 11—reveal unaddressed problems with major safeguards and a backlog of preventive maintenance.
And it is methane that is still spewing uncontrollably into the surrounding communities from inoperable gas valves atop similar silos of sludge, called digesters, at Nassau County’s troubled Cedar Creek Water Pollution Control Plant in Wantagh—Bay Park’s sister facility, and twice subject of Press investigations [“Toxic Offender,” Sept. 22, 2005 and “Toxic Time Bomb,” April 29, 2010]. The Press physically tested one such valve in the latest story and reviewed records indicating it and other parts of the gigantic chamber—there are nine—have been labeled “not operational” since at least 2005.
But inoperable methane gas valves, as catastrophic a disaster they could cause, are just one potential tragedy still waiting to happen at the nearly 40-year-old facility, nestled between Seaford Harbor and Mandalay elementary schools at Cedar Creek Park on Long Island’s South Shore. Despite the exposés, investigatory hearings by the Nassau County Legislature and recent public promises from Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano for more manpower and resources, myriad hazards are still rampant at Cedar Creek. And new information suggests similar issues could be afoot at Bay Park.
Much has happened in the wake of the Press exposé last April of the hazardous health and safety conditions at Cedar Creek and potential dangers it poses to the environment and public at large: investigations by local, state and federal regulators, several new hires and promises of more money and equipment.
And yet, clearly not enough.
“The condition of the plant is appalling,” laments lifelong Seaford resident Phil Franco, who with Mark Salerno of Wantagh, co-chairs the watchdog Cedar Creek Health Risk Assessment Committee. “It’s still understaffed and it’s falling further behind.”
“I’m at a loss,” says Salerno. “Nothing has changed down there.”
Interview requests for this story from County Executive Mangano and Department of Public Works (DPW) Commissioner Shila Shah-Gavnoudias were not granted by Mangano’s press office. Superintendent of Sewage Plants, Unit Head of Environmental Operations, Richard Cotugno, through his secretary, refused to speak with the Press. His message also covered the response to a request to speak with Operations Supervisor Kevin McGoldrick.