When Glen Cove’s Mayor Tim Tenke broke the news at the last City Council meeting in August that an Environmental Protection Agency study found no trace of human feces in the contaminated stream that has kept Crescent Beach closed for nearly 10 years, and that the source was likely animal, the finger pointing began.
Many locals on Facebook accused dog walkers who let their furry friends do their “business” in the marshlands uphill of the beach of failing to clean up after their canines. Others were virulently skeptical of the findings, conspiratorially insinuating that septic problems on the properties adjacent to the beach went un-remedied, because the homeowners didn’t want the public infringing on their private beach.
The Herald Gazette has obtained a copy of the EPA’s study, spoken to officials at the state Department of Environmental Conservation, elected leaders who have been involved in meetings on the subject, and an independent laboratory in Suffolk. Here’s what we know.
The EPA’s study took 16 samples from as many different locations around the wetlands between 1 and 3 p.m. on May 7, 2018, which, in terms of the weather, was a clear day. Of those 16 samples, none of them contained either of two markers of human feces.
Four contained levels of coliform — a biological contaminant — so high that the EPA lab’s instruments were unable to measure it. Scott Curatolo-Wagemann, a stormwater specialist at the Cornell Cooperative Extension, an education center and lab in Riverhead, said that he wasn’t certain which tests the EPA lab had performed, but noted that some tests, designed specifically to preserve the integrity of a sample, may lose some precision once levels of coliform exceed a certain amount.
Eric Swenson, of the Hempstead Harbor Protection Committee said that timing was important here. “It doesn’t take much [feces] to have a very high reading,” he said, “especially if you happen to catch it right after the animal did what it does.”
Only one sample showed these immeasurably high findings across three different measurements: E. coli, coliform, and fecal coliform. That same sample showed much higher levels of enterococcus, another intestinal bacteria, than all the other samples.
This study by itself doesn’t clarify much beyond the total absence of human excrement from all of the samples, without exception. The DEC said in a statement that a single animal could produce the amount of coliform found in the Crescent Beach stream. It clarified that there has been no speculation about whether there are one or many animals to blame, but merely providing tangible context for the degrees of contamination found.
The DEC did not respond to questions about whether they would conduct further testing.
Curatolo-Wagemann’s Suffolk-based, Cornell University-affiliated lab has the capacity to check which of 14 species — human, dog, horse, fox, raccoon, muskrat, deer, or one of seven species of bird — is the source of a sample of coliform. In order to conduct the test accurately, he would need six samples, which would cost $4,200, or $700 per sample.
The DEC said that in a statement that they were preparing a “confirmatory round of DNA sampling during wet weather events in the coming weeks.”
County Legislator Delia DiRiggi-Whitton thinks that more tests are a good idea. “I am glad the DEC is repeating the DNA test,” she said. “The previous findings surprised me, especially since Nassau County Board of Health found human results in its prior testing.”
Mayor Tenke said he’s not really interested in identifying which species has been contaminating the water, although, he added, “I would want to know, is it a domesticated animal or a wild animal?” Tenke doesn’t think that dog walkers are responsible. “I would find it very hard to believe that a person who walks a dog with a leash wouldn’t be carrying a baggie,” he said.