Fresh Pond Health Risk Ignored

As East Hampton Town prepares to go all-in on water quality, there is one place it is decidedly ignoring: Fresh Pond in Amagansett. According to tests done for Concerned Citizens of Montauk, Fresh Pond creek has as often as not been contaminated with fecal enterococcus bacteria. And this is not simply at mildly elevated levels: In a water sample last month, the bacteria count was almost 60 times higher than the federal standard for safe recreational contact. 

The Environmental Protection Agency says that a count of more than 104 viable enterococcus cells per 100 milliliters of water renders it unsuitable for swimming. A sample taken at Fresh Pond on July 24 indicated a level of 6,131 cells. 

Enterococcus is a common bacteria found in the human gut, which has been linked in multiple studies to gastrointestinal illness and skin and other problems. Additional sources of this bacteria include wildlife, but other sites regularly tested by C.C.O.M. and at other locations on the South Fork by the Blue Water Task Force of the Surfrider Fondation’s Long Island Chapter have plenty of birds and other creatures around, but far lower cell counts. 

A likely suspect in Fresh Pond contamination are the town’s own restrooms, which are about 30 paces from the creek. There are houses and a small cabin complex nearby as well, but hardly enough to immediately suggest their waste systems are the sole source of the problem; there are many similar locations in town where bacteria has not proved ominous.

Caregivers of the young children who play in the creek at Fresh Pond have not been warned about the risk. During a visit recently, a reporter watched as two girls about 4 years old splashed about in the warm, brownish water. A local camp had planned a nature field trip there this week and changed the location only at the last minute after being alerted to the C.C.O.M. test results.

Parents have for years talked about kids developing symptoms after swimming in the Fresh Pond creek. If these anecdotal observations reached Town Hall or the county, they were not acted upon. Official response has been lacking even after C.C.O.M. began tests. The town has said it cannot accept the data because the samples were not processed in a certified lab. The Suffolk Department of Health Services does not test the water at Fresh Pond because it is not, technically, a bathing beach with required permits. Nonetheless, the town requires beach-parking stickers there, which implies that the water’s fine when maybe it’s not. 

What is disappointing about the Fresh Pond situation is that neither the town nor the county considers C.C.O.M.’s results worthy of investigation. Consider, by comparison, what happens when the police hear complaints about a vehicle speeding on a particular street; an officer is sent out at once. Not so with East Hampton Town, which so far has just shrugged off what appears to be a legitimate health risk — one involving children, in fact. At a minimum, the town owes it to the public to conduct its own tests, verify or disprove the C.C.O.M. results, and post warnings that all is not well if elevated bacteria levels are confirmed. It defies reason that the town has not acted so far.