No safe harbor
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Erica explained that her career had brought her in contact with industrial hygienists and forensic building investigators, and said this knowledge increased her sensitivity to health issues in the wake of the hurricane. She said she and her husband were paying out of their own pockets to have their home inspected and any hazards identified, and that they are staying out of their home until they can get better information.
“We’re rotating couches at the moment,” said Jeffrey. “We were in Brooklyn last night, Bellmore tonight. After that, we don’t know.”
Sani2 demanding answers
Residents like the Presses aren’t the only ones worried about possible contaminants unleashed in the area of Barnes Avenue, bordering on Parsonage Creek. Jerry Brown, a commissioner with Sani2, has also been seeking solutions, or at least information, about health and environmental hazards.
“What we have here is a backup of raw sewage in the neighborhood,” said Brown, speaking by mobile phone from the potentially hazardous area. “[The sewage] mixed with flood waters and went into the houses. We know there are threats of e-coli, hepatitis — things that can cause serious illness and even death.”
Brown said that in addition to the health hazard, the environmental impact of flooding in the area has yet to be properly assessed. He mentioned that boats that tipped over and cars that were submerged could have leaked gasoline, motor oil and other fluids into the environment. These substances, he said, might have found their way into the homes that displaced residents are now starting to reoccupy.
“I understand that this is not the top priority,” Brown said. I know [Nassau County Executive] Ed Mangano and Shila [Shah-Gavnoudias of the Department of Public Works] have other things to do, but people need information before someone gets deathly ill.”
Brown said he has been trying to get homeowners, health professionals, the DPW and town and county officials into one meeting to distribute information he feels is dangerously lacking. “We need someone to tell people what to touch and what not to,” he said. “We had the EPA and Department of Health down here on Friday, and although this isn’t their jurisdiction, they questioned why anyone would be living here. They all agreed it’s an environmental disaster.”
Both Brown and the Press family say the problem with the sewer cap on Barnes isn’t a new one. “We can document this problem all the way back to 2001,” Brown said. And Jeffrey Press told the Herald, “We’ve been in our home for seven years, but there are people in our neighborhood who have been complaining about [the sewer cap] for 15.”
According to Press, backups of the sewer cap on Barnes are common. But he believes that a measure taken to reinforce the cap in the weeks before Sandy may have made the problem worse. “The patch remedy they tried to do didn’t work. All they did was bolt down the sewer cap,” said Press, who has photos of the bright new bolts sunk into the rusty metal cover. “That measure caused the entire vault to pop up out of the street when the [Bay Park Sewage Treatment] plant backed up. It exacerbated the situation.”
His video shows a stream of fluid bubbling up in the middle of a flooded Barnes Avenue. Press said that the material discharged from this rupture comes from a force main and vault that breached the pavement during Hurricane Sandy. He added that the underground structures — which usually combine and pump sewage from several smaller lines to the Bay Park plant in East Rockaway — ruptured on Oct. 29 and gushed raw sewage until Nov. 1 or 2.
The Bay Park plant, which the Department of Public Works acknowledges malfunctioned on Oct. 29, serves nearly half of Nassau County. The facility was fined $500,000 in 2011 for various failures, and was in the midst of a $70 million slate of upgrades when Sandy struck.
DPW says it’s on the case