Health Testing At Havens Beach Is Incomplete


For a week now, following an article and editorial in last week’s The East Hampton Star,  officials from the Village of Sag Harbor have been getting phone calls from residents wondering why the village would not inform its residents that swimming at Havens Beach in Sag Harbor could put them in danger.

While official testing data out of Stony Brook Southampton has yet to be completed, and county testing has continued on a monthly basis, the general consensus at a special Sag Harbor Board of Trustees meeting this week was swimmers need not “beware” of swimming at Havens Beach. However, storm water run off and other sources of bacteria are being studied, and especially after a large rain event can lead to high levels of bacteria, specifically at levels that prohibit the beach from being used to harvest shellfish, which was banned at the beach.

On Wednesday, August 20 the board of trustees convened a special forum with the Peconic BayKeeper Kevin MacAllister, Stony Brook-Southampton associate professor and director of the Coastal and Estuarine Research Program Chris Gobler, members of the Harbor Committee, village planner Rich Warren and East Hampton Town Natural Resources Director Larry Penny. The forum, said Mayor Greg Ferraris, was conceived in an effort to provide the public updated information on a yearlong testing protocol that started in April, and clear up some questions regarding county beach advisories and closures.

A drainage creek runs north to south through marshland and onto the beach allowing stormwater runoff, collected from drains around the area, to dissipate into the Sag Harbor Bay. About six years ago, a plan was studied to create a bio-filtration system to snake through the dreen in order to ensure bacteria would be naturally filtered. Ferraris noted that the estimated $300,000 project went as far as to go to bid, but federal funding had dried up, and at the same time the village received county testing figures back that showed a pollution problem did not exist at the beach.

Last year, in part because of a brochure issued by the Peconic Baykeeper, Ferraris said the village began looking at the possibility of contaminants in the dreen, specifically hoping to discern the cause, whether it be storm water runoff, animal waste, effluent from boats in the bay or even a result of the village’s own wastewater treatment facility.

“Really, what we wanted to do was try and put a testing system in place to try and pinpoint the contaminants,” said Ferraris. In April, with the help of the BayKeeper, the village began to do just that after a Harbor Committee meeting focused on the subject and a testing protocol. The BayKeeper, working with Gobler and Stony Brook-Southampton’s Coastal and Estuarine Research Program began their own testing protocol, using points in the dreen, as well as test areas 100 yards from shore. The sampling was scheduled for an eight-month period, between April and November of this year, although village officials did ask a full year’s testing be performed to ensure a complete study.

On Wednesday, Ferraris stressed the village board is responsible first and foremost for the safety of its residents and the bathers at Havens Beach, and should they be made aware the beach is unsafe they would immediately take action.

Ferraris presented the panel with correspondence from the Suffolk County Department of Health Services Bureau of Marine Services Supervisor Robert Waters, who provided information on what a beach advisory is and what a beach closure is. Suffolk County Department of Health Services has never, wrote Rivers, closed Havens Beach due to “water quality criteria excedances,” or because a test came back with a unsafe level of fecal coliform for swimmers. According to Rivers, since 2003, “10 rainfall-related advisories recommending against bathing at Havens Beach, have been issued.”

“These were not closures for cause,” he continues. “Just precautionary recommendations to avoid bathing in water potentially impacted by storm water.”

According to the department’s website, these advisories can be triggered by even the anticipation of heavy rainfall.

“Havens Beach water quality is generally very good, and often excellent,” writes Waters. “There are occasional water quality perturbations however, likely due to storm water runoff through the pipe.” He goes on to say it is possible other sources, like waterfowl, boats and other sources may have played a role.

According to Gobler, the New York State Department of Health has switched its testing to focus on enterococcus as what it uses in monitoring bathing beaches. Gobler is looking at the same bacteria, but said the tests were not ready as his lab is currently in the process of upgrading to a bio-safety level two in order to complete the protocol, which should be done shortly. Preliminary results, he said, did show occasions where levels were exceeded, after wet weather events.

Gobler stressed enterococcus, not coliforms, is what determines safety at a bathing beach, although coliform levels are used for the opening and closing of shellfish beds.

“The very good thing in all of this is this is an issue that is being regulated by the state department of health,” noted Gobler. “So, thankfully, in the end, we will have a very black and white response on bathing and shellfish.”

However, said Gobler, the grey area will be the dreen on the beach itself and urged the village to think of how to deal with that from a safety standpoint in the future.

Village officials agreed signage, at the least, should be posted around the dreen and Ferraris later said the village would increase signage so residents know what a Suffolk County advisory is. 

Top photo: The dreen at Havens Beach, which has been the focus of storm water run off concerns in the Village of Sag Harbor. (michael heller photo) Middle photo: Peconic BayKeeper Kevin MacAllister, East Hampton Town Natural Resources Director Larry Penny and Stony Brook-Southampton associate professor and director of the Coastal and Estuarine Research Program Chris Gobler at a meeting organized by village officials about Havens Beach on Wednesday, August 20.