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Residents should avoid contact with the Peconic River in downtown Riverhead due to a potentially unsafe discharge of sewage wastewater, according to county health officials.

A sample of the river water in downtown Riverhead last week contained “unusually high coliform levels,” according to Grace Kelly-McGovern, a spokesperson for the Suffolk County Department of Health Services.

In one sample collected by the county, coliform levels were four times the plant’s permit discharge limit, Riverhead Sewer District Superintendent Michael Reichel said today.

Coliform bacteria are found in the feces of humans and other warm-blooded animals. The high levels of coliform found in last week’s samples were caused by a discharge of “inadequately treated wastewater” from the Riverhead sewage treatment plant, according to the county health department.

The county issued an advisory today warning residents to avoid contact with the tidal portion of the Peconic River, which is the portion of the river east of Grangebel Park along the East Main Street parking lot.

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Sewer District Superintendent Michael Reichel gives a tour of the sewage treatment plant last year. File photo.

The high bacteria samples are a result of the ongoing sewage treatment plant upgrade, which requires a shutdown of part of the plant’s equipment, according to Reichel.

“We’re operating on half a sewage treatment plant right now,” Reichel said in an interview.

Riverhead Sewage Treatment Plant is currently undergoing a $22 million upgrade that will reduce nitrogen discharge into the Peconic River. Abnormally high nitrogen levels in the Peconic Estuary were blamed for the massive turtle and fish kills over the summer, though it is not likely they were caused by the treatment plant, which is already designed to strip wastewater of much of its nitrogen contaminants.

Because of the upgrade, the plant is operating with only one of two sequencing batch reactors online while the second one is upgraded, Reichel said.

That requires a lot of manual adjustments throughout the plant to keep the discharged wastewater consistently within its permit discharge limits. The state Department of Environmental Conservation, which regulates the plant, issued a three-month interim permit establishing discharge limits while the upgrade is taking place.

The other batch reactor will be back online in February, but until then, sewer district technicians have been making changes to compensate.

“A lot is being done by hand,” Reichel said. “We’ve instituted several different process control changes.”

That includes technicians physically adding chlorine to the wastewater because the turbidity, or cloudiness, of the water makes disinfection by ultraviolet light — the plant’s normal disinfection process — ineffective. The water is cloudy because it is only being processed through one batch reactor.

“Everyone is doing everything they can possibly do,” he said. “We’ve got staff there 24/7 taking additional samples and testing to make sure the corrective actions that we’re doing are effective.”

Reichel is confident that the situation is improving, and he expects the next batch of samples in the Peconic River to have reduced bacteria levels.

Meanwhile, county health officials are advising residents avoid contact with river water downtown. If contact does occur, rinse off with clean water immediately. Seek medical attention if after exposure you experience nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, allergic reactions, breathing difficulties or skin, eye or throat irritation.

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