The focus of this chapter was on the importance of removing nitrogen from the Sound. It was clear that it would be important to remove nitrogen from sewage with a focus on treatment plant improvements, separating storm water from waste water to prevent overflow, reducing acid rain, re-evaluating appropriate land-use procedures, and reducing the use of nitrogen-containing fertilizers.
Having visited wastewater treatment plants more times than I’d like to count (it is an annual field trip with multiple classes), I have seen the process first-hand and spoken with the engineers that design the plants. Primary treatment and secondary treatment when performed in the traditional capacity only remove a small fraction of the nitrogen in wastewater. Since nitrogen is a limiting factor for plant growth, if we are continually pumping nitrogen into the Sound it will act as a fertilizer, contributing to the hypoxia observed in the summer. One major solution to the problem of hypoxia is to improve wastewater treatment to remove more nigtrogen.
At Stamford’s Wastewater Treatment system, engineer Jeannette Semon has shown that nitrogen removal can be greatly improved without a huge cost expenditure. “Semon wrings about 70 percent of the nitrogen from the wastewater… Achieving the reduction required no huge capital expenditures, no construction tanks, no extensions of the network or pipes and sluiceways.” What it did require was additional time in treatment, which means that extra space was needed to contain the wastewater in order for this practice to take place. The bacteria that breakdown the ammonia in wastewater through nitrification will convert it to nitrite, and then to nitrate. Allowing additional bacteria the extra time needed to go through the denitrification process to convert that nitrate to nitrogen gas, which is released to the atmosphere, requires additional time. For wastewater treatment plants that are already operating at or above capacity, this process could not happen unless the plants were upgraded.
In this chapter, we are introduced to the political wrangling that must go on in order for a cleanup of the Sound to take place. It became clear that the biggest threat to the Sound was overdevelopment. As Susan Bellinson, president of SoundWatch puts it: “More population means more sewage, more floatable garbage, more fertilizers, more auto exhaust, more oil leakage, more boats in the marinas, more blacktopping, more hardening of shoreline areas, which reduces the biological filtration properties of the land.”
Builders battled with environmentalists, saying that putting a cap on wastewater treatment plants’ nitrogen release would essentially mean a moratorium on development, since more people means more sewage. The arguments went on and on, until it was decided that sewage would be capped at 1990 levels, and the builders and environmentalists realized that they could be on the same side. After all, upgrading wastewater treatment plants would create jobs for builders. The estimated cost of reducing nitrogen by 58.5% over fifteen years would be $650 million dollars, which would reduce the amount of nitrogen entering the Sound from 39,000 tons to 16,185 tons. The environmental benefits would be huge, and it was estimated that oxygen would fall no lower than 3 milligrams per liter, and “hypoxia would have virtually no effect on the abundance of winter flounder of lobsters; its effect on the abundance of scup would be reduced by 61 percent; and its effect on fish abundance in general would be cut by 97 percent.”
The New Sound
Andersen begins the chapter by reminiscing about a fishing trip that he took in July of 1987. At that time, the hypoxia was in full swing. “And yet if we could have had some sense of it… if we could have heard the roar of the rivers of sewage, tasted the sour drops of acid rain, watched the uncountable discharges of storm sewers; if we could have seen the algae growing and dying, felt whatever the flounder and blackfish felt as oxygen disappeared; if somehow we could have seen into the future, seen that the Sound had become little more than a stagnant, weed-choked sink—perhaps then we would have been hit with a gut revulsion, a raw emotion to move us to act. Perhaps it would not have taken another four years merely to get a policy that mandated sewage plants to cap their nitrogen flow at 1990 levels and almost eleven years to get an agreement to begin reducing nitrogen.” Isn’t that the case with all environmental problems? If we could see and feel the destruction we’re doing, see into the future, would we delay our actions?
Anderson then goes on to show Norwalk as an example of a local community that has done a good job restoring its oyster beds. Soundkeeper Terry Backer says of oystering: “It’s an appropriate use of the water. It’s an industry that’s very sensitive to the environment, and has to be. It’s what the Sound should be used for.” Shellfishing is highly monitored by the state, and the biggest problems come from wastewater. When it rains, many shellfish beds are closed because we know that will lead to an increase in untreated sewage released into the Sound. Many beds have been closed until further notice. I would take the recent reopening of shellfish beds in Greenwich as a sign that the cleanup and the efforts to reduce nitrogen in the Sound are making progress.
Dead Oysters, Dead Lobsters
In the Afterword, Andersen discusses oyster and lobster die-offs in the late 1990’s. While sewage is characterized as the predominant threat to the Sound throughout the book, the Afterword portrays another possible threat to Long Island Sound: global warming. Andersen calls this idea “one that seems equally plausible: that the die-off of oysters and lobsters was linked to increased water temperatures, which were linked to global warming. If that turns out to be the case, the prospect is even gloomier than that of oystermen and lobstermen losing their means of making a living.” In the future, will we see that climate change will take the place of wastewater as the biggest environmental threat to the water quality, ecosystems, and people of Long Island Sound?