Featured Story

Peconic River contaminated by wastewater, county health department warns


Residents should stay out of the Peconic River this week, after wastewater that didn’t meet healthy standards was discharged from the Riverhead sewage plant, Suffolk County health officials said Tuesday.

The Department of Health Services issued an advisory for the tidal area of the river east of Grangebel Park, saying contact with water should be avoided.

“If contact does occur, rinse off with clean water immediately,” the department warned. “Seek medical attention if, after exposure, you experience nausea, vomiting or diarrhea; skin, eye or throat irritation, or allergic reactions or breathing difficulties.”

The discharge was first noticed in a batch of test results returned on Friday, according to a news release.

“Corrective actions were taken immediately, and the situation is improving,” the release states. “Suffolk County Health officials are working closely with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, which has jurisdiction over the permitting and enforcement at the facility and with the management at the Riverhead plant.”

The sample showing inadequate treatment was collected last week and showed levels of coliform bacteria that exceeded the sewer district’s permit requirement, said sewage district superintendent Michael Reichel.

“Right away we worked on some process control changes to try to rectify whatever the problem would be,” he said. “We’re doing everything that we can to mitigate any negative impacts to the process … We’re throwing everything at it that we have.”

The town is currently in the process of upgrading its sewer facilities, meaning one of the plant’s two tanks was taken out of service in November to be fixed up. In the meantime, the plant’s other vat has been shouldering the load, which Mr. Reichel said has put a strain on the capacity of the vat’s bacteria — which help break down the sewage..

“It’s like having a steady diet of your breakfast, lunch, and dinner and all of a sudden you have food shoved down your throat,” Mr. Reichel said. The district has been dousing the water with chlorine and adding in more pumps and hoses to make up for the lost capacity, and started the upgrades in the winter when less people would be in or near the water, in case of contamination.

Mr. Reichel said the town’s own tests — which were taken at a different time of day — didn’t show any excess amount of bacteria.

“We’ve been taking samples all along, but we haven’t had any exceedances,” he said. “All of our samples are coming back within the permit limit.”

That said, a violation is a violation, he said. Since the county’s tests showed over-the-limit bacteria levels, the sewer district has taken numerous steps to fix any potential problem, Mr. Reichel said, including increasing the amount of chlorine, resetting the plant’s programing, and resampling the water in multiple locations.

Sewer employees are working around the clock until they can “get it under control,” he added.

“The health department is doing what they’re supposed to be doing,” he said. “They’re putting out the notification to cover public health.”

The sewer district is now waiting for the latest results from the county, and said the upgraded vat should be back online by the end of January.

“Hopefully we can get through this without any more issues,” Mr. Reichel said.

[email protected]

The Riverhead Town sewer plant off Riverside Drive. (Credit: Paul Squire file photo)