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Cesspool

Installation of the pre-treatment septic tank at the O'Dwyer's home in Strong's Neck. Photo from Tom O'Dwyer

When it came to their cesspool being replaced, one Three Village couple based their choice on their concern for local waterways.

Excavation at the O’Dwyer’s home in Strong’s Neck. Photo from Tom O’Dwyer

Tom and Carolyn O’Dwyer decided to install a low-nitrogen septic system on their Strong’s Neck property this spring after learning about the treatment process. Unlike a cesspool where bacteria and nitrogen can seep out, and into local water sources, Tom O’Dwyer said in their new system water percolates through a septic system, and the advanced process removes more nitrogen than a cesspool. Excessive nitrogen can affect the oxygen level in water where it is below the necessary levels to support marine life.

“It’s good for the environment, and it’s good technology,” he said. “I do this stuff every day, so I figured I would lead by example.”

O’Dwyer, an environmental engineer, recently attended classes offered by the county to learn about the systems and the grants Suffolk has to offer to those who choose to install them.

As of July 1, Suffolk County residents who voluntarily decide to replace their cesspools will need to replace them with a system consisting of a septic tank and leaching pool at a minimum. Contractors will need to register the system with the Department of Health Services. While residents can choose a conventional septic system, another option is an advanced device that removes more nitrogen. County grants of up to $20,000 are available for residents who qualify, where the county has been offering the grants for the last two years. There is also an additional state grant of up to $10,000, which can mean a total of up to $30,000.

O’Dwyer said he and his wife bought their house four years ago, and while the cesspool hadn’t given them too many problems, after hearing about the low-nitrogen units, he thought it was the best way to go, especially with living 500 feet from the water, a part of their home they love.

“Our family enjoys swimming, boating, fishing and clamming in the local waterways, so clean water is very important to us,” he said.

“Our family enjoys swimming, boating, fishing and clamming in the local waterways, so clean water is very important to us.”

— Tom O’Dwyer

Involved with larger projects like past work on the Tappan Zee Bridge, he began hearing about low-nitrogen installation projects out East and decided to start learning about the systems and soon began designing them.

O’Dwyer said so far most of the work he has seen has been on the East End of Long Island, and he’s trying to get the word out to his friends about the grants and is currently working on three different homes on the North Shore where the homeowners are tired of their cesspool problems.

He said he found the process to apply for a grant from the county easy. He filled out an application and submitted a deed and tax forms. He said residents can then pick an engineer to design the system and pick a contractor off the list of county-approved contractors. Suffolk then directly pays the contractor.

The engineer said a site can be difficult at times due to certain ground conditions, and homeowners may have to pay more than the average of nearly $20,000. Field testing may be required to see if the ground is clay or sand and how well the soil will drain. As for engineers, the price averages around $2,500.

Treated wastewater effluent sample bottle, right, beside spring water bottle, left. Photo from Tom O’Dwyer

Peter Scully, deputy county executive for administration, said Suffolk County sanitary code requires that the low-nitrogen systems treat down to at least 19 milligrams per liter of total nitrogen, and it’s the most stringent requirement in the northeast. He said while the total nitrogen from cesspool discharge is said to be around 65 milligrams per liter, “the health department staff routinely see samples with concentrations of total nitrogen far in excess of 65 mg/l and in excess of 100 mg/l.” He added that conventional septic systems discharge  61 mg of nitrogen per liter, and the low-nitrogen systems create a 70 percent reduction when compared to cesspools.

George Hoffman, co-founder of the Setauket Harbor Task Force, calls those who upgrade to low-nitrogen septic systems “harbor heroes” because, he said, they care enough about water quality to do the right thing.

“It’s good to hear that homeowners in our area are installing low-nitrogen septic systems and are having a positive experience and setting an example for their neighbors,” he said. “This is especially important on Strong’s Neck where the transit time for groundwater to Setauket Harbor and Conscience Bay is less than two years.”

Suffolk County Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket), a proponent of the bill, said the code was updated to match what was passed in 1972 for new residential construction where conventional septic systems with a leeching pool needed to be installed.

“They knew way back — almost 50 years ago — they knew the cesspool itself was not enough,” she said. “It’s essentially a hole in the ground.”

Hahn said studies of subwatersheds in the county, where more than 70 percent of structures are not hooked up to sewer systems, have shown quite a bit of nitrogen from residential waste.

She said while the low-nitrogen septic systems are not yet mandated like the conventional septic systems, it’s possible as early as next year that they could be for new home construction.

“They knew way back — almost 50 years ago — they knew the cesspool itself was not enough.”

— Kara Hahn

Hahn said the commitment of the county executive, legislators and county staff members has included working with the wastewater industry to find ways homeowners can switch over to the new system, how to install and to know exactly what the systems do.

“It’s been a tremendous accomplishment to get where we’re at,” she said.

She said many residents might save money with the low-nitrogen systems if faced with replacing a cesspool or at least break even instead of choosing a conventional septic system. She did say there is a small electric charge based on the system annually and a little more maintenance that residents should be aware of when choosing the system.

As for the grants, it must be the applicant’s primary residence occupied year-round. Most residents who have applied have qualified, Hahn said.

Last week O’Dwyer sampled his new system, and he said the effluent looked clear with no odor. The field samples also showed reduced nitrogen levels. The environmental engineer said he and his wife are happy they installed the system, and now through his business, he plans to help others do the same.

“My whole career I was searching for something,” he said. “I was passionate about a lot of things, but this intertwines my passion and my hobbies with my education and engineering background, so it’s a nice match.”

Interested residents can call Suffolk County Department of Health Services, 631-852-5811, for more information.

File photo

A man was killed while installing a cesspool at a home on Beech Place in Huntington just before 1 p.m. Wednesday, May 24, according to police.

A crew was installing a cesspool at a home located at 2 Beech Place in Huntington when the ground gave way trapping Edward Sinnott at approximately 12:50 p.m. Sinnott, 59, of Huntington, was recovered just before 7 p.m. and pronounced at the scene by a physician’s assistant from the Office of the Suffolk County Medical Examiner.

Suffolk County Police 2nd Precinct and Emergency Service Section officers, Nassau County Emergency Service officers, members of Huntington Community First Aid, Huntington Fire Department, Huntington Manor Fire Department, Greenlawn Fire Department and Dix Hills Fire Department responded as well as officials from the Town of Huntington and Occupational Safety and Health Administration responded.

Suffolk County Police Homicide Squad detectives are investigating the incident.

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Poofa sits with an officer after his rescue. Photo from SCPD
Poofa sits with an officer after his rescue. Photo from SCPD
Poofa sits with an officer after his rescue. Photo from SCPD

Suffolk County Police officers rescued a 6-year-old male Goldendoodle from an abandoned cesspool in Kings Park Tuesday night, Oct. 27.

Boris Avezov was outside Superior Ice Rink on Indian Head Road, walking with his dog Poofa at approximately 7:30 p.m., when the dog pulled his leash away from his owner to chase a rabbit. Poofa then fell into a 16-foot abandoned cesspool located behind the ice-skating rink, where he remained for about an hour as officers from Emergency Services worked to free him.

Officers Tom Russo, Mike Cocia and Lance Prager were lowered into the cesspool using a mechanical pulley system. They were then able to adapt a sked, a piece of equipment normally used to rescue people, to save the dog. Officers Glen Baillargeon, Gerry Sheridan and Mike Simpson were also involved in the rescue.

Poofa and the officers were not harmed. Avezov, of Bellmore, was waiting for his children who were ice-skating at the rink.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone pitches the proposal. Photo from Steve Bellone

Suffolk County is delaying a bold proposal that would have charged residents a minimal fee to enhance water quality protection efforts.

In April, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) staged a press conference in the company of environmentalists and lawmakers to announce his plan to address nitrogen pollution in drinking and surface water across the region by charging an additional $1 per 1,000 gallons of water. It needed the state legislature’s blessing in order to go before Suffolk County residents in a referendum vote in November, and this month, Deputy County Executive Jon Schneider said in reports that the county would be holding off on the plan to allow more time before putting it on the ballot.

The proposal would have kicked in in 2018 and established what Bellone called a “water quality protection fee,” which would fund the conversion of homes from outdated septic systems to active treatment systems, the county executive said. He estimated the $1 surcharge would have generated roughly $75 million in revenue each year to be solely dedicated to reducing nitrogen pollution — and still keep Suffolk County’s water rates nearly 40 percent lower than the national average.

Peter Scully, deputy county executive and head of the water quality initiative, said in an interview that some state lawmakers showed no interest in advancing the proposal, forcing the county’s hand before putting it to a referendum.

He said that Bellone preferred this kind of surcharge be decided by residents via referendum.

“We received kind of a sobering indication from the state Senate that there was not enough support for the proposal to let the people of Suffolk County vote,” he said. “We decided that this appears to be more of a timing issue.”

Richard Amper, executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, endorsed the initial county proposal but said he was “mad as hell” over the decision to halt the plan for another year. In an interview with TBR News Media, Amper said the administration was handcuffed by state lawmakers who did not want to see Bellone’s plan come to fruition.

“If I had children, and they pulled something like this, I’d send them to their room,” Amper said. “The Bellone administration felt the Senate had made this decision for them. It was killed — not withdrawn.”

Amper said state Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport) expressed little interest in allowing Bellone’s proposal to come to a vote this November and accused him of playing political games with the environment.

“This is something they can’t not do something about,” Amper said. “It’s the biggest environmental and economic crisis this island ever faced.”

A spokesman for Flanagan issued the following statement: “Our office has always considered the merits of any legislative proposal advanced by Suffolk County’s elected officials, and we will continue to do so in the future.”

State Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) — a known environmental activist — said the measure would have done wonders for the state’s water supply.

“We’re really looking at an opportunity to correct some deficiencies that could, if left uncorrected, unhinge our economy, which is based upon people bathing and recreating in our coastal waters, fishing and otherwise enjoying our waters,” he said when it was announced. “For the first time, we are pulling a program together that integrates both our fresh water and saltwater in one protection initiative, and that is very significant.”

Some lawmakers, including county legislators Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga) and Leslie Kennedy (R-Nesconset) staged a press conference following Bellone’s proposal to express opposition, calling it unwelcomed taxation.

George Hoffman, of the Setauket Harbor Task Force, also stood behind Bellone’s proposal when it was announced and said it would benefit Suffolk County for decades to come. He said it was “one of the most far-reaching and important public policy issues in decades,” and said it was important to proceed slowly and “get it right” moving forward.

“I worked with the supervisor of Brookhaven in 2003 when the town put forward a $100 million dollar open space fund referendum that received over 70 percent voter approval — but we spent many months going out to the various communities and explaining why it was needed,” he said. “You can’t cut corners on big policy issues and when you need the voters to approve new funding sources like the proposed water surcharge.”

Roughly 90 percent of the population in Nassau County operates under an active wastewater treatment system through connections to sewage plants. But in Suffolk County, there are more than 360,000 individual cesspools and septic systems — representing more unsewered homes than in the entire state of New Jersey — that are more likely to release nitrogen into the ground and surface water.

Scully said the county would be workshopping the proposal with civics and business and other stakeholders across Suffolk in order to perfect the proposition before putting it to a vote.

“If there are folks who are opposed to our proposal and don’t have one of their own, that means they’re not concerned about solving the problem,” he said. “We’re hoping we can get productive discussions.”

Wastewater is handled at a sewage treatment plant on the North Shore. File photo by Susan Risoli

There’s something in the water — our own excrement.

Last week was national SepticSmart Week, an annual U.S. Environmental Protection Agency initiative created to teach people how to care for their septic systems. People should know how to maintain these waste systems to prevent their contents from seeping into the ground and into our drinking water aquifer, but it’s a shame that we are still at this point.

Suffolk County politicians frequently talk about their lofty goals to build sewer systems throughout our neighborhoods. In addition to better protecting surface and groundwater, sewers enable commercial and residential development, which is what we need to keep Long Island a viable community for future generations. But we rarely see progress toward the widespread sewer goal.

Part of the problem is the tremendous cost of “sewering up” all of our homes and businesses. However, it’s better to start paying now than when we are in the throes of another recession and desperately need sewers in order to attract business and keep the economy chugging along; or when we wake up one morning to find our water supply irreparably saturated with human waste particles.

Although there are admirable government initiatives to reduce nitrogen pollution, sewers are the ultimate solution. Maybe our electeds are hesitant to be the hated ones handing taxpayers a large bill for the projects, but someone’s got to do it.

Until our elected officials start taking real action, there are things we can do to help spare our drinking water, such as investing our own money in our septic systems, upgrading them to more environmentally friendly ones and safely cleaning them out more frequently to prevent overflowing.

According to Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone’s office, there are 360,000 county lots with septic systems and cesspools that add nitrogen pollution to our communities. If even 10 percent of those lot owners upgraded their septic systems, it could make a world of difference.

Officials gather to see the cesspool at Alan Marvin’s house in Nesconset on Thursday, Sept. 24. Photo by Victoria Espinoza

Suffolk County Executive Steven Bellone (D) gathered with public officials and members of the community on Thursday to celebrate the third annual national SepticSmart Week.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s SepticSmart Week, which runs from Sept. 21 to 25, is a nationally-recognized week meant to inform and encourage homeowners on how to properly maintain their septic systems.

Suffolk County officials also hope this week will educate homeowners on how their septic systems impact local water quality.

“It’s a time to focus on the issues that are and haven driven water quality, and the issues that allow us to reverse the decline we’ve seen in our water quality,” Bellone said.

Suffolk County currently has 360,000 unsewered lots with cesspools and septic systems that contribute to nitrogen pollution in the county’s surface and groundwater, according to a statement from Bellone’s office. More innovative wastewater septic systems and updated programs will help reverse the decades of decline in the county’s water, the county executive said.

“This is a testament to the importance of this problem,” Suffolk County Legislator Kara Hahn (D- Setauket) said. “Nitrogen is seeping into our groundwater and reeking havoc.”

Bellone’s “Reclaim Our Water” initiative is one that partners with the liquid waste industry to overhaul the county’s liquid waste licensing program. Changes proposed to the licensing process would require training and continuing education for the many specialized services within the liquid waste field.

“These proposed training and requirements will create accountability and increase consumer confidence, as property owners can be assured that the company they hire has been trained to best service the specific septic system they have and protect Suffolk County’s ground water,” according to a statement from Bellone’s office.

Bellone said a partnership Suffolk County has developed with the Long Island Liquid Waste Association is helping improve relationships between the private sector and their customers in water waste management.

“It’s making sure the private sector is set with the tools they need to help homeowners with these new advanced waste water septic systems,” Bellone said.

Other members of Suffolk County government were excited by the new water quality initiatives.

“We’re involved in a historic initiative in Suffolk County to address a serious threat to our environment and our economy,” Peter Scully, deputy county executive for water quality said. “We’re always happy and anxious to work with the private sector on solutions.”

This event was held at Nesconset resident Alan Marvin’s home. Officials inspected Marvin’s cesspool and observed how it had changed over time.

Marvin said he was lucky to be have been chosen because he learned afterwards that his septic system is set to overflow by December, and he would have had to call for emergency services. He said he was not aware of that.

“It’s an important issue,” he said. “I don’t think most homeowners realize when they go to the bathroom what it affects. This is a good way for Suffolk County residents to learn.”