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How’s The Water?: April 5, 2013

Refuge At Risk Revisited:

A Progress Report

Back in October of 2005, Defenders of Wildlife, a well-respected national environmental organization, selected the Oyster Bay National Wildlife Refuge as one of America’s 10 most endangered national wildlife refuges. The selection of the Oyster Bay NWR from more than 540 refuges nationwide served as a wake up call for many people. The fact that this NWR was literally in the back yard of Sagamore Hill, the home of President Theodore Roosevelt, who created the national wildlife refuge system, was an irony that was not lost on our community.


The Defenders of Wildlife report listed a number of issues that threatened the health of the bay. Among those issues were failing septic systems and outdated sewage treatment facilities, pollution from boating activities, and development projects that would further erode important habitat and increase sewage flow into Oyster Bay. Also listed as jeopardizing the health of the bay were “the future redevelopment and decontamination of two sites where massive heating oil storage tanks have leached pollutants into the water. Exxon-Mobil’s plans for the tanks no longer in operation on Cold Spring Harbor have yet to be disclosed. Tanks on the eastern waterfront owned by Commander Terminals LLC are still in operation, and it is unlikely that Commander will address contamination concerns any time soon”

Seven years later, it is heartening to look back and see the progress that has been made on these issues. Largely through the efforts of Friends of the Bay, many of the threats in the report have been addressed or are in the process. At the time of the report, the sewage of approximately 60 homes in The Birches development with failing septic systems was being discharged into Mill Neck Creek, a problem that had been allowed to continue for over 30 years. After years of quietly advocating for a solution to this blatant violation of the Clean Water Act having no result, Friends of the Bay initiated the formation of a grass roots effort to garner public support and outcry. The result was the formation of the group Residents for the Protection of Mill Neck Creek. The public outcry and news coverage generated resulted in a plan the install a collection system, pump station and forced sewer main to transport the sewage from this area to the Glen Cove Sewage Treatment Plant. This system is now complete with the vast majority of these homes connected. Our annual Water Quality report, due out this spring, is expected to show significant improvements in this area of the Bay.


The Birches has not been the only improvement to water quality since the report. In 2006, the Oyster Bay Sewer District completed an upgrade of the Oyster Bay Sewage Treatment Plant (already in the works at the time of the report) that was designed to reduce nitrogen discharged into the bay by more than 60%. The Oyster Bay-Cold Spring Harbor complex has also since been designated a federal no-discharge zone. 


On the development front, our efforts have led to several positive outcomes. The Mill Pond Overlook property, at the time the site of a planned 68-unit senior housing project has since been acquired by the Town of Oyster Bay though the SEA Fund and is now in the final planning stages for use as a low impact park. Avalon Bay’s plan to construct a 300-unit apartment complex on a 5-acre parcel on Pine Hollow Road was defeated by overwhelming community opposition. 


As for the two oil storage facilities, only one now remains. The Exxon-Mobil tanks have been removed and the site has been cleaned up and replanted with native grasses. The land was recently donated to the North Shore Land Alliance as open space. Unfortunately, the Commander terminal remains much as it did in 2005. The terminal is still in operation and Friends of the Bay will continue to monitor developments at this site.


While the progress and outcomes regarding the threats cited in the Defenders of Wildlife report are
encouraging, many threats still remain and new ones arise every year. Many of these threats are chronic and will require constant monitoring and effort to realize incremental improvements, while others pop up with little or no warning and require a quick and effective response. Pollution from stormwater threatens the estuary with reduced water quality, beach and shellfish closures and loss of habitat; unsound development proposals threaten to increase pollutant levels as well as our quality of life; and compromised habitat from decades of human abuse suppress the vibrancy of our watershed.


For over 25 years Friends of the Bay has been protecting the quality of our lives by protecting the quality of our water. Now we are planning for the future so that we can continue to address these threats. Our Watershed Action Plan will be the roadmap for substantial improvements over the next decade and beyond. The creation of the Oyster Bay-Cold Spring Harbor Protection Committee will be the catalyst for municipal cooperation within the watershed to implement those improvements. And Friends of the Bay will concentrate our efforts on initiation of restoration projects that will improve the vibrancy of our watershed and our bay. For more information, and to offer your support, please go to