On Nov. 23, Bochner, Hangley and Borecky joined a handful of other local officials, environmentalists and civic leaders dubbed The Sludge Stoppers to publicly demand immediate action to stop the sludge dump. A fired-up Nassau Legis. David Denenberg (D-Merrick), who accompanied the Press on previous visits to Cedar Creek and helped open investigatory hearings into malfeasance at the plants after the Press’ 2005 article, led the press conference, calling for an investigation and hearing regarding the violations and the lack of notification.
“We’ve had catastrophic releases since March,” he told the Press afterward, referring to a 3.5 million gallon overflow into East Rockaway Channel following a March nor’easter. “Violating your permit for particulates, which means sludge in the water, by over 10 times the permitted amounts [what Cotugno said in a report regarding an October incident], to me is an environmental catastrophe. And why the administration didn’t report it, and why there’s no chain that would at least say, this is what happened, this is how we stopped it, and no preventative measures in the meantime, while it continues, how do you continue, as Scott Bochner says, to press the switch and release? You can’t release!”
He also accused the Mangano administration of actively participating in a cover-up.
The administration fired back moments later, blaming Denenberg as the one responsible for the latest expulsions due to his inaction while chair of the Legislature’s Public Works committee, and stating the March incident was unrelated to the plumes.
“They have allowed repeated and excessive violations since March, not told the public, underreported to the DEC and not called in the Department of Health. Now they want to blame a legislator?
“Unbelievable,” he laughed, pointing out that Mangano was the ranking member of that same committee under Suozzi.
A review of SPDES violations of those actually reported to the DEC shows there’s plenty of blame to go around. And the reality is much, much worse than what other local media outlets are reporting.
Cotugno reported in an October discharge from Bay Park settleable solid levels exceeded its permit limitations by 10 times its legal amount, from 0.3 parts per million of solid materials (its legal limit) to 3. Yet on March 31, 2010, the level released by the plant exploded to 14 parts per million, an increase of more than 46 percent its legal limit. The previous September, it violated the permit by more than 35 percent, to 10.6 parts per million. The exceedences go on and on, from violations in pH of effluent gross (toxicity) levels and settleable solids, to total suspended solids, copper, mercury, benxo(a)anthracene, Benzo(k)flouranthene and Methylene chloride levels, among others.
The illegal permit violations occur during both Suozzi and Mangano’s administration.
Point Lookout Civic Association President Gerald Ottavino, also a member of The Sludge Stoppers, puts it bluntly: “Nobody—even those who are trying to help currently, is without sin. Nassau County is guilty of sins of commission. And DEC is guilty of sins of omission, in times, I think abject negligence.”
As far as notifying the public goes, that’s also become a political, intra-agency proverbial game of Pass-The-Bag-O-Shit.
Interview requests for various local and state officials inquiring who is responsible for warning the public about the plumes and potential dangers associated with people eating the fish caught swimming in the brown sludge plumes of Reynolds Channel, or from taking a dip themselves, were met with their own varying forms of “Oh, shit!”
A spokesperson for the Nassau County Health Department, which closes beaches when there’s elevated bacteria levels following strong rain storms, said: “The waterways are not under our jurisdiction, that’s DEC.”
Regional Water Manager William Spitz of the DEC, which Bochner and Hangley complains will fine and/or arrest anglers caught keeping four flukes under 21 inches or a boater flushes a 45-gallon holding tank, said: “Nassau County Health Department is aware of the situation and this is best answered by the health department.”
Party or agency affiliation makes little difference to Bochner and his fellow Sludge Stoppers, however. Whoever will get the job done, hold those responsible accountable to the fullest extent of the law, and get the proper signage and notification up—immediately—Democrat or Republican is who they’re championing. They’d also support a forensic audit of Nassau’s sewage money books, they say. Most importantly, the sludge needs to stop and the public needs to be informed, whatever it’s called—“settleable solids,” “suspended solids,” “partially treated” or “disinfected,” as both Shah-Gavnoudias and the DEC have described the releases.
“It’s all shit, right?” asks Borecky, rhetorically. “Take a swim in my toilet, it’s the same thing.”
“I’ll tell you the same reaction I told her [Shah-Gavnoudias] at the table,” Bochner tells the Press. “’You swim in it. If you’re saying that it’s treatable and it’s fine, then come with your family, I’ll take you out there, and you swim in it. If you’re swimming in it, then its’ fine with me. You want to swim in it now, I’ll put a wetsuit on you and I’ll take you out now.”
“C’mon, I’ll catch a fish, you eat it, and you swim in it,” he continues. “That’s my reaction to it. And if it’s not good enough for you to eat or swim in, then put it in your backyard. Dig a big hole, and put it in your backyard.”
“There are a lot of people fishing on this fishing pier and they’re feeding their families with that,” stresses Hangley. “Nobody’s telling them that this is dangerous water.”
The Press did.
Tony Lee, 65, from Queens, was one of a dozen fishermen huddled along Magnolia Pier this week, pole in hand, looking to reel in some herring (after all, Newsday almost that same day, wrote it was quite the catch here). He’s been catching and feeding his family—including two children—with fish from Reynolds Channel for the past two years. He says he didn’t know and no one ever told him about the sludge slicks or that there even was a sewage outflow pipe right upstream.
Squinting his face in the biting early December chill, wrapped snugly in his thick winter coat, Lee was surprised, upset and angry after being told of his catch’s fecal incubator and the sins of Bay Park. He says he would have liked to have known and believes the county should have told him.
“Now I know that, okay, I don’t come back here,” he said. “Thank you. Thank you [for] tell[ing] me.”
Another, who only gave the name “Hank,” but who has been coming to the pier for more than 25 years, knows all about the pipe and its sludge.
“It stinks over there,” he grunts. “That’s where the Bay Park guys—there was sludge over there.”
Hank, too, won’t be partaking in Magnolia Pier’s cuisine any time soon.
“I would catch fish but I don’t eat that, I give it away, or I throw it back in the water,” he says, adamantly. “I won’t eat that crap.”
It was probably similar to the odor this reporter and a Press videographer witnessed upon following Bochner’s mid-afternoon dump-spotting advice Dec. 10.
Around 4 p.m., commotion on the water.
The dozens of floating birds had transformed into hundreds, flapping their wings and thrashing along the water while a long, spidery, dark arch encircled near the concrete square and extended outward, resembling a stream of oil that had just been poured in a large puddle. Its rings looped far out into the horizon, toward about a dozen fishermen casting lines at Magnolia Pier.
And there’s absolutely no way Cotugno and others inside Bay Park—in either the current administration or the previous (such as Nassau’s former DPW Commissioner Raymond Ribeiro and former DPW Deputy Commissioner/current Chief Sanitary Engineer Joseph Davenport, for example)—and/or someone, didn’t know or see exactly what has been being sent out into Reynold’s Channel, the Press has learned.
The truth lies in broad daylight.
As open as they can be, there are checks and balances enabling constant monitoring of the wastewater and byproducts throughout the entire plant. The process itself, and very design, allow for it. In fact, it’s all extremely open, just for that reason: to ensure the types of discharges occurring never happen without someone seeing it and being able to correct it.
Bay Park’s grit tanks, its final tanks—even the stymied Thickening Building—all consist of monstrous series of open vats and bays where the plant’s management, its workers, even a passerby coming to deliver the mail, can simply look right over into any of its many chambers (final tanks resemble the swimming lanes like those at a public pool, for example) and see exactly what is going on, what it looks like, whether what should look like clear water resembles a dark black cascading Guinness Stout.
There’s even an “Effluent Channel’—this large, open, rushing stream, the last sight of the plant’s product before it gets flushed out into Reynolds Channel—right outside both of the latter processes. Anyone can stand right there and see—or even hoist down a metal can suspended by a chain to grab a cup to double-check its clarity or test a sample. [On Dec. 13, it was pretty transparent. You could see the concrete floor of the channel as the water rushed across it.]
Bochner was told by the county they had absolutely no idea what was being pumped out illegally.
“It’s criminal,” blasts Bochner. “I don’t know how, first of all, somebody could allow that to happen, and dump into a U.S. waterway without alerting anyone that they’re able to see it. It’s unimaginable to me that someone with some kind of a conscience—unless somebody’s holding a gun to his head and saying, ‘If you say anything I’m going to kill you and your family!’ If it’s not that, if you’re only—how could you not just tell your superior or your boss and say, ‘Hey, this is not clean that’s going into that water’? It’s wrong! It’s immoral!”
“This guy should not be running a plant, he should be in jail,” he says.
A current veteran sewage worker who has spent years at both Nassau plants and worked directly with Cotugno—and wishes to remain anonymous because of this—tells the Press he personally knows with 100-percent certainty that Cotugno and others knew exactly what has been taking place at the troubled facility, especially in recent weeks. He warned him about it.
“You have to do lab results,” he explains. “You get lab results to know if you’re violating your permit, SPDES permit. And it shows up—there’s proof, it shows up on lab results, that you have too much solids going out.”
“They see the reports,” he continues. “And especially the last six months or whatever. I can’t tell you this on the record, but I went to Richard Cotugno to tell him. I says, ‘You have a problem coming down the road. Look at your numbers here. Look at the stuff we have going on.’ And then a week later they started blowing this stuff out. He said, ‘Ah, don’t worry about it.’ So he had a head’s up weeks before the stuff started going out, weeks, actually, it was more than one week, so.”
But reported or unreported, hazards to people are only one side of Bay Park’s devastating coin.
Besides, shockingly writes Shah-Gavnoudias in a recent mailer about how the county’s on top of the situation, “The truth is that the Bay Park Treatment Plant has intermittently exceeded its permit limit for settleable solids since it was reconstructed in 1988.”