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Source of old syringes on beaches no mystery

Activists say sewage overflows, runoff after big storms to blame

Asbury Park Press USA TODAY NETWORK – NEW JERSEY

The question of how discarded syringes washed up on the shoreline in Monmouth Beach and Seven Presidents Oceanfront Park in Long Branch isn’t a mystery to activists and others who know about water quality at the Jersey Shore.

Hardly new, the problem stretches back to the 19th century, when engineers in New York City and elsewhere thought it was a good idea to combine sewage, storm water and industrial waste and send it to the same treatment center, said Cindy Zipf, executive director of Clean Ocean Action in Long Branch, an advocacy group.

But in 1900 New York City had a population of 3.5

million. Today it’s 8.2 million.

Those systems still work fine when it’s not raining. But when it rains heavily, the antiquated systems get flooded and both storm water and raw sewage are diverted into waterways like the New York-New Jersey Harbor. The effluent is called combined sewer overflows, or CSOs.

Modern systems treat only sewage, letting stormwater flow separately.

According to the U.S. Department of Environmental Protection, the combined systems are “a major water pollution concern for the approximately 772 cities in the U.S.”

Zipf and others suspect that’s where the more than 100 syringes that washed up on beaches Sunday came from.

“They are all probably tracked back to heavy rainstorms and combined sewer overflows and runoff,” said Tony MacDonald, director of the Monmouth University Urban Coast Institute. “So that really is the major source of marine debris in the ocean.”

The state Department of Environmental Protection agreed.

“The floatables came from outfalls in and around the NY/NJ Harbor following combined sewer overflows from large rain events prior to and during Tropical Storm Elsa,” according to the department’s statement issued Monday night. “The overflows, in addition to wind direction and tides, directed the floatables onto the beaches from Pavilion Beach in Monmouth Beach to Joline in Long Branch.”

Those beaches were reopened Monday.

Fixing the problem with CSOs would be gargantuan, Zipf said.

“Imagine having to dig up Newark and put in a separate pipe for stormwater,” she said.

She has one suggestion that comes with a big price tag: infrastructure improvements.

Perfect storm

Back in the 1980s, syringes and other medical waste turned up on New Jersey beaches with disturbing frequency 1988 was not a banner year for Jersey Shore beaches, when beaches were closed more than 800 times.

Businesses that couldn’t comply with new medical waste restrictions back then were suspected of taking the easy way out — right into the ocean.

“You had this perfect storm of increased regulation and lack of compliance,” MacDonald said.

Federal regulations, like The Clean Water Act of 1977, had a huge impact on the quality of the ocean water, he said.

“I’ve thought we’ve made significant improvements of management of waste, we’ve restricted a lot of dumping at sea” and questions were raised about New York’s waste management control, MacDonald said. “All of that has been tightening up since the ’80s. So it’s surprising to me to hear that it is happening again.”

Mike Castellano, chair of Jersey Shore chapter of Surfrider Foundation, said his group finds a few syringes during each beach sweep.

“Every single cleanup,” he said. “Some have needles, some still have the cap on, some are syringes without needles. You always find them at the high tide line.”

The bigger problem is tampon applicators. Castellano said the group finds five times as many applicators as it does syringes.

The last time a lot syringes were found at beaches in Monmouth County was in 2018, forcing the closure of 13 beaches, he said.

The state DEP called the syringes “home-use diabetic- type syringes,” but Castellano has his doubts. Syringes are frequently discarded by drug users on streets, under bridges and in other areas close to the water and can easily make their way into runoff. He suspects that’s where they come from.

Will syringes and other items washing up on the shoreline diminish?

“The good news is this doesn’t happen all the time,” Zipf said. “The bad news is it still happens. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”

MacDonald brought up another problem.

While tighter regulations have helped, global warming is providing a fresh concern.

“Obviously, what you have now is probably an increased intensity of storms,” he said.

Ken Serrano has covered crime, breaking news, investigations and local issues in New Jersey for more than 20 years. Reach him at 732-643-4029 or kserrano @gannettnj.com.

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