Jul 29, 2014
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Long ago bungle at Berkeley Island County Park

Officials provided a less-than-stellar solution for septic waste

Long ago bungle at Berkeley Island County Park

Politicians do the dumbest things.

One of the classics I uncovered was the plan to put a septic system in the middle of Barnegat Bay. Huh?

Yep, Ocean County's freeholders were moving ahead with a plan to do just that – at Berkeley Island at the end of Brennan Concourse.

The county bought the sedge island, which had been covered with dredge spoils, as a park. What a great move! There it was, separated from the mainland by a narrow channel spanned by a two-lane bridge on the north shore of the Cedar Creek where it runs into the bay. They promised not to build bathrooms on the island until a sewer line reached it when they bought it in the 1960s.

But they outfitted it with portable toilets, which were overwhelmed by the large number of people using the park to fish, swim, crab, and recreate in the late 1960s and in 1970.

What to do?

The nearest sewer line was a mile away to the north, so there was no chance of extending the sewer system to reach the island anytime soon. The state was tightening the noose on the use of septic tanks in the shore area, with the Department of Environmental Protection banning the installation of new ones. The reason was simple, easy to understand. The soil was sandy and the water table high near places like Barnegat Bay. What flowed into septic tanks quickly reached the bay. That caused the closing of vast areas of the bay bottom to shellfishing because of the resulting health hazard. Beaches were closed when fecal coliform counts soared.

To underscore the danger, the DEP, in January 1971, closed another 1,549 acres of the bottom of Barnegat Bay to shellfishing because of sewage pollution. That brought to 7,287 acres the total closed to clamming, oystering and scallop harvesting in the bay, about a sixth of its entire area.

So putting a septic system in the middle of Berkeley Island was out of the question, right? Wrong.

There it was in mid-June of 1971, the beginnings of a public bathroom served by a septic system at Berkeley Island. I found it while reporting for the Trenton Times. Water rose and fell in the main septic tank with the changing tides. It reached to within two feet of the top of the tank. Pipes from the tank would discharge the toilet wastes into the sandy soil of the island.

I confronted Freeholder Director Joseph S. Portash. He promised a report after Parks Superintendent Aubrey Clayton and county Architect James Hyres of Jackson inspected the system.

What about the state ban on new septic tanks? Not to worry, the plan was approved late in 1970, before the ban, Portash insisted.

Why hadn't the contractor, C. J. Mahieu of Jackson, gotten a permit for the system from Berkeley Township? No answer for that one.

What about the storm drain that was right in the middle of the area where the pipes from the septic tank were to carry the liquid wastes? That storm drainage system would empty into a cove on the northern shore of the island. No reply.

The Portash-promised report came from Hyres,  an architect, not a hydrologist, and was predictable.

"The system is being installed according to plans and specifications prepared by this office based on recommendations by the New Jersey State Department of Health. When complete, this system will provide adequate capacity for the (bathroom) building. The field, in my opinion, will in no way contaminate any of the adjacent bay areas.''

Hyres said the septic tank would be sealed when it was completed. He didn't say the area where the liquids would flow from the tank would not be sealed. The tank was located west of the bathroom building and about 100 feet south of the cove on the island's north shore. The interaction between the bay water already flooding the system and its intended use was not specifically dealt with in the report.

Reports or no reports, construction of the septic system came to a screeching halt on June 17, the day officials were quizzed about it. Two portable chemical toilets served park users throughout the summer of 1971.

Today Berkeley Island is served by a sewer system that has its central treatment plant off Hickory Lane and its ocean discharge line ducking under the bay at Allen Road before its crosses South Seaside Park and extends into the ocean.

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