Officials scramble to save waterways and groundwater

County Set On Eliminating Cesspool Pollution




State, county, and local officials are involved in a full-fledged war on nitrogen pollution as they race against the clock to save the watershed and waterways in the county, particularly the South Shore.

Recently Suffolk County fired off the biggest salvo yet — a $4 billion, 50-year plan to “turn the tide on nitrogen pollution” that will hopefully yield meaningful results in 10 years — if it isn’t too late by then.

Suffolk officials, calling it “historic,” released its long-awaited Subwatersheds Wastewater Plan, which calls for a transition away from the reliance of cesspools and septic systems, which have been identified as the primary source of nitrogen pollution.

Suffolk Health Commissioner Dr. James Tomarken announced the study, stating, “Scientists have warned that continued reliance on primitive wastewater disposal systems is a mounting threat to both our environment and our economy.” It will take a mammoth effort to be sure, but county officials said a coalition of scientists, business leaders, organized labor, and environmental leaders endorse the plan.

Approximately 74 percent of Suffolk County remains unsewered, so individual residences and businesses rely on antiquated onsite wastewater disposal systems. Studies show that about 70 percent of the nitrogen input to local bays comes from approximately 360,000 cesspools and septic systems. After 1973, newly installed systems were required to include both septic tanks and leaching pools.

The SWP notes, however, that more than 253,000 of the systems were built before 1973, and are simply cesspools, which are essentially injection wells that direct contaminants to groundwater. The groundwater in Suffolk County is part of a sole-source aquifer that provides the region’s drinking water, but is also the primary source of nitrogen contamination to streams and bays.

Last month, Suffolk banned the installation of cesspools unless they are accompanied by a septic tank.

Previously, New York State and Suffolk teamed to offer incentive programs, up to $19,200 per household to install an advanced treatment system.

The East End towns have voted for a percentage of Community Preservation Funds — a tax on real estate transactions — also be set aside for septic upgrades.

The Clean Water Infrastructure Act of 2017, championed by Governor Andrew Cuomo and the State Legislature, established the State Septic System Replacement Fund and allocated $75 million to support the multi-year effort.

A Race To Reverse

Now the race to reverse the troubling buildup of nitrogen begins in earnest.

The SWP set an ambitious goal of investing $2.7 billion to eliminate 253,000 cesspools and septic systems by replacing them with new individual nitrogen reducing systems, or by connecting properties to sewers.

While the plan identifies some areas that can be connected to sewers, most of the nitrogen reduction would be accomplished through replacement of cesspools with individual advanced nitrogen-reducing onsite systems that have been demonstrated to remove over 70 percent of nitrogen from wastewater. Both Suffolk County and New York State are currently offering grants that cover most of the cost for homeowners who decide to replace their cesspool or septic system with one of the new systems voluntarily.

Between 2019 and 2023, for Phase I, which officials call the “ramp up” phase, an estimated 10,000 cesspools and septic systems would be eliminated through replacement of 5000 cesspools with new technology.

For the second phase, beginning in 2024, the plan recommends the elimination of 177,000 cesspools and septic systems in near-shore and high priority areas over a 30-year period at an estimated cost of $1.9 billion per year.

“One critically important aspect of the plan is the economic opportunity and new jobs that will continue to be created, both in the rapidly developing industry of trained and certified technicians required to install and maintain the new nitrogen reducing systems, and in connecting thousands of additional parcels to sewers,” said Deputy County Executive Peter Scully.

“Over the past several years, the county has worked cooperatively with the liquid waste industry to establish licensing requirements and to provide the training needed to install the new systems. Right now, the industry can support the installation of about 1000 systems per year, but the capacity of the industry will continue to grow as more local small businesses are created to meet market demands,” Scully added.

The third phase of the program calls for upgrades in all other priority areas in a 15-year period between years 2054 and 2068, at a cost of $730 million. Upgrades in the remaining areas of the county would be completed in the fourth phase of the program at an estimated cost of $1.3 billion, bringing the overall cost of the program for phases one through four to $4 billion.

Advancing Strategies

In addition to recommendations for wastewater management, the SWP provides the foundation for advancing strategies to reduce nitrogen from non-wastewater sources such as fertilizer, and includes recommendations for addressing other compounds, such as contaminants of emerging concern, phosphorous, and pathogens.

The plan is the subject of detailed environmental review by the county’s Council on Environmental Quality, including the development of a generic environmental impact statement. CEQ’s determination that the GEIS is complete, expected in mid-August, will trigger the start of a 30-day comment period and the scheduling of two public hearings on the plan. Interested citizens can access information regarding the plan online at suffolksewerstudy.cdmims.com/Subwatersheds.aspx

Dr. Christopher Gobler, endowed chair of Coastal Ecology and Conservation, School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, and director of New York State Center for Clean Water Technology at Stony Brook University, said, “The strength of this plan is the incredibly strong and sound science on which it is based. The county has taken what may be the largest and most comprehensive water quality data set generated by any county in the country and has generated a robust, comprehensive, and forward-thinking plan to restore Suffolk County’s most vital resource: its drinking water and surface waters.

He continued: “While I have spent my career documenting the degradation of Long Island’s fisheries and aquatic habitats, it is inspiring to finally see a plan designed and implemented that will reverse course on decades of negative trajectories. The citizens of Suffolk County will reap the benefits of this plan for decades to come.”

“The Subwatersheds Wastewater Plan is a significant piece of work and will serve as an invaluable tool as we move forward with implementing Suffolk County’s Septic Improvement Program and cleaning up our ground and surface waters,” Suffolk County Legislator Al Krupski said. “This was a long and deliberative process and there are many people to thank, including members of Suffolk County Economic Development and Planning and the Division of Environmental Quality, as well as County Executive Steve Bellone, who had the vision to recognize the impact of nitrogen pollution and the resolve to move forward with finding solutions.”

Suffolk County Legislator Bridget Fleming said, “Science tells us that nitrogen from outdated septic systems is the leading cause of contamination of our groundwater, which then spreads into our bays, gravely impacting our entire ecosystem. In the face of this crisis, I applaud County Executive Bellone and the Suffolk County Department of Health Services for taking the lead with this groundbreaking, science-based plan, which targets priority areas within Suffolk County to save our drinking water and our critical marine resources,” she said.

“I’m proud to have been part of this vital undertaking, and I look forward to continuing the work required to support the effort.” 

rmurphy@indyeastend.com