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Cesspools

Suffolk County demonstrates new denitrifying septic systems installed in county resident's homes. Photo from Suffolk County executive’s office

Suffolk County will look to address the ongoing issue of nitrogen pollution in surface and groundwater with an ambitious plan that will look to transition away from the reliance on cesspools and septic systems. 

The Subwatersheds Wastewater Plan, which would invest $4 billion to combat nitrogen pollution, would last more than 50 years and sets a blueprint for the county to replace hundreds of thousands of old and inadequate septic systems. 

A map detailing the phases of the proposed project. Images from Suffolk County. Click for full view.

The plan sets a goal for the county to eliminate 253,000 cesspools and septic systems by replacing them with new nitrogen reducing systems or by connecting them to existing sewers. According to Suffolk health officials, approximately 74 percent of the 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.

“Scientists have warned that continued reliance on primitive wastewater disposal systems is a mounting threat to both our environment and our economy,” said Dr. James Tomarken, Suffolk health commissioner. “Now, for the first time, there is a long-term plan to diminish nitrogen pollution and put Suffolk County on a path to cleaner, healthier water resources.”

The SWP has highlighted more than 190 individual watershed areas in Suffolk County and established goals and recommendations for reducing nitrogen inputs into each area. If those goals are met, health officials said it will begin to reverse the decline in water quality within 10 years and bring it back to a more pristine condition.

To get that process started, officials said the county will use more than $500 million in already allocated grant sources toward the replacement of 10,000 cesspools and septic systems and expand connections to sewer systems over the next four years as part of the first phase of the plan. 

“This plan represents the first meaningful strategy to address legacy septic nitrogen pollution since countywide sewering objectives were abandoned some four decades ago,” Walter Dawydiak, director of Environmental Quality for Suffolk County, said. “In those four decades, we learned a great deal about how toxic excess nitrogen is to the ecosystem. However, we consistently failed to solve the single largest environmental health problems of our generation. Finally, we have a response plan that will restore our ecosystems and protect our drinking water.”

In the second phase of the plan, which would begin 2024, the county would look to eliminate more than 177,000 cesspools and septic systems near shorelines and high priority areas. It also recommends a requirement that cesspools and septic systems be replaced with new technology when properties change hands, or when those cesspools and septic systems fail. Officials estimate that the requirement could increase the number of cesspools eliminated from 1,000 to more than 5,000 per year. 

The third phase of the SWP will tackle all other priority areas during a 15-year period. The fourth and final phase would address the remaining areas of the county beginning in 2068.

Currently, county grants of up to $20,000 are available for residents who qualify and wish to replace their cesspool. There is also an additional state grant of up to $10,000, which can mean a total of up to $30,000. 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, according to previous reporting by TBR News Media. Contractors will need to register the system with the Department of Health Services.

The SWP will undergo a detailed review by the county’s Council on Environmental Quality and will include an environmental impact statement which is expected sometime in mid-August, according to officials. From there, a 30-day comment period will begin, with two public hearings being scheduled.

By Donna Deedy

donna@tbrnewsmedia.com

“It’s more than a pretty garden,” said Chris Clapp, a marine scientist for The Nature Conservancy. “It’s a biological process that relies on plants, wood chips and microbes to remove nitrogen in wastewater before it flows back into the environment.”

On June 24, County Executive Steve Bellone (D) joined Clapp with a conglomerate of representatives from both government and the private sector at The Nature Conservancy’s Upland Farms Sanctuary in Cold Spring Harbor to unveil a state-of-the-art method for reducing and eliminating nitrogen from wastewater. 

The county expects the new system to be a replacement for cesspools and septic systems, which are blamed for the seeping of nitrogen into Long Island waterways, causing red tides, dead zones and closed beaches.

County Executive Steve Bellone and Nancy Kelley of The Nature Conservancy plant the new garden at Upland Farms.

The issue is a serious concern, Bellone said, as he introduced the county’s Deputy Executive Peter Scully, who is spearheading the county’s Reclaim Our Water Initiative and serves as the Suffolk’s water czar. “Anytime a government appoints a water czar, you know you have problems to address.”

Scully, formerly the director for the Long Island region of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, said six other septic alternatives are currently approved.    

Long Island is reportedly one of the most densely populated locations in the country without adequate wastewater treatment. Currently, there are 360,000 antiquated cesspools and septic systems. The county expects to set nitrogen reduction targets for watershed areas where replacement holds the most benefit. 

The technique, called a vegetated circulating gravel system, is composed of an underground network that essentially connects the drains and toilets of a home or office to plant life and microbial action. It works in two stages to denitrify the wastewater. The first phase discharges wastewater into an underground gravel bed covered with a surprisingly small garden of native plants that takes up nitrogen through its roots. The water is then circulated into an underground box of wood chips that convert the remaining nitrogen into gas, before it’s circulated back to the gravel bed. Once the water is denitrified, it’s dispersed through a buried leaching field. 

The county partnered with the Nature Conservancy to develop and implement the system for its Upland Farms Sanctuary. The sanctuary is located a half-mile from Cold Spring Harbor, where water quality has worsened during the last 12 years to the point where the state is officially proposing to designate it an impaired water body. 

“The Conservancy is proud to stand alongside the county and our partners to celebrate this exciting new system that taps into the power of nature to combat the nitrogen crisis, putting us on a path to cleaner water,” said Nancy Kelley, Long Island chapter director for The Nature Conservancy.  

During the experimental phase the system reduced by half the amount of nitrogen discharged from wastewater. A similar technique has been effective at removing up to 90% in other parts of the country. The system’s designers at Stony Brook University’s Center for Clean Water Technology aim to completely remove nitrogen from discharges.  The Upland Farms offices and meeting hall system, which encompasses 156 square feet,  serves the equivalent of two to three homes. 

Suffolk County Legislator William “Doc” Spencer (D-Centerport) said that denitrification efforts work. The Centerport Yacht Club’s beach was closed for seven years due to water quality issues and reopened in 2015 after the Northport sewer plant upgraded to a denitrification system. Improvements to the harbor storm drain discharges, and a public lawn care campaign about curbing the use of fertilizers, also reportedly helped. 

The county has reached a critical juncture and beginning July 1, its new sanitary code for septic systems takes effect, which permits only denitrifying technology.

Justin Jobin, who works on environmental projects with the Suffolk County Department of Health Services, said that he expects to gain approval for a pilot program to accelerate the vegetated circulating gravel system’s public introduction, which could be approved as soon as this summer.  The design can be modified, its developers said, to serve single homes or large businesses. In addition to removing nitrogen, the system can also naturally filter out pharmaceuticals and personal care products.  Its impacts on 1,4-dioxane are being studied. 

Visit www.ReclaimOurWater.info for additional information. 

Photos by Donna Deedy

New law closes loophole to permanently ban replacement of old, primitive cesspool technology to reduce nitrogen levels in water

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, center, displays the new county law banning the updating or instillation of primitive cesspools and the technology associated with them, as he’s surrounded by local leaders and environmental group organizers during a press conference. Photo from Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone’s office

Repairing old cesspools is now a thing of the past in Suffolk County.

As part of an ongoing effort to improve water quality on Long Island, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) signed into law a ban on installing new cesspools, ending the practice of grandfathering inadequate
sanitary system fixes with the now-primitive technology.

“It marks another historic step forward in our ongoing effort to reverse decades of nitrogen pollution that has degraded water quality in our lakes, bays and harbors, and it is a step that is long overdue,” Bellone said. “It is fairly unusual for the local governments, environmental groups and the region’s largest builders group to agree on the importance of tightening up outdated regulations to protect water quality, but that is exactly what happened in this instance. This inclusive, collaborative approach is making a huge difference in our efforts to reduce decades of nitrogen pollution.”

Cesspools have been identified as primary sources of nitrogen pollution that have degraded water quality throughout Suffolk County, contributing to harmful algae blooms, beach closures and fish kills. The use of cesspools in new construction has been banned in the county since 1973, when a requirement for the addition of a septic tank was added, but the county sanitary code did not require that homeowners add a septic tank when replacing an existing cesspool, making it legal to install a new cesspool to replace an existing one. By now closing this loophole, it will advance the water quality efforts undertaken by the county and set the stage for the evolution away from the use of nonperforming cesspools and septic systems to the use of new, state-of-the-art technologies that reduce nitrogen in residential wastewater by up to 70 percent, according to Bellone.

“With this action, I would like to say that we, as a county, have adopted the policies necessary to adequately address our region’s nitrogen pollution problems, but in reality, this gets us closer to where we should have been in the decades following 1973,” said county Legislator Kara Hahn (D-Setauket), a co-sponsor of the Article 6 revisions and chairwoman of the Suffolk County Legislature’s Environment, Planning and Agriculture Committee. “I look forward to continuing the process of finally bringing Suffolk County’s sanitary code into the 21st century.”

In addition to banning the installation of new cesspools, the law approved by the Suffolk County Legislature Dec. 5 requires the wastewater industry to provide data regarding system replacement and pumping activities to the Department of Health Services beginning July 1, 2018. It also mandates permits for replacement of existing systems effective July 1, 2019, and requires business properties with grandfathered nonconforming wastewater flows to install nitrogen-reducing advanced systems if making significant changes to the use of the property.

Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, joined forces with other environmental group leaders in thanking the county for what was a necessary step in eliminating nitrogen from groundwater.

“We can no longer allow inadequately treated sewage to mix with our sole source of drinking water,” she said. “Modernizing our health codes is a commonsense action that is critically needed for water protection.”

Richard Amper, executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, said he was overjoyed by the “huge step,” ending pollution by what he called Suffolk’s No. 1 threat to clean water.

“Now, we’re not just complaining,” he said. “We’re doing something about it.”

For the past three years, Suffolk’s Legislature has instituted a pilot program to test the new technologies, using a lottery system to select homeowners willing to have a donated system installed to demonstrate system performance. Under the pilot program, a total of 14 different technologies have been installed at 39 homes throughout the county. Four have been provisionally approved for use after demonstrating six months of acceptable operating data. As part of continued efforts, a voluntary Septic Improvement Program, the first of its kind in the state, was launched in July 2017 to provide grants and low-interest financing to make the replacement of cesspools and septic systems with new innovative/alternative technologies affordable for homeowners who choose to upgrade their systems. Over the first five months, nearly 850 homeowners have registered for the program, 228 have completed applications and 160 have been awarded grants and are moving toward installation of the new systems.

Suffolk County was the first in the state to apply for funding from New York State’s newly created $75 million Septic System Replacement Fund and will use the funding to expand its efforts to see the new technologies installed throughout the county.

The changes are the first in what is expected to be a series of updates to the county sanitary code over the next several years as county officials consider whether to put in place policies that require new nitrogen-
reducing systems in new construction projects, require installation of the new systems when a cesspool or septic system fails and needs to be replaced, or upon sale of a property. For now, all parties involved are on the same page moving forward, including both a working group comprised of county legislators, town planners and engineers with members of environmental organizations, as well as the Long Island Builders Institute.

“There is more work to do,” said Kevin McDonald, conservation finance and policy director for The Nature Conservancy on Long Island. “But passage of this bill means less nitrogen pollution in our water, and more resilient, healthy bays and people for generations to come.”

Bellone speaks during a town hall at Port Jefferson Village Center. Photo by Kevin Redding

For a few hundred dollars annually, Suffolk County residents now have the option to take a step to improve the quality of Long Island waters.

County Executive Steve Bellone (D) urged homeowners at a town hall meeting at Port Jefferson Village Center April 27 to get on board with a new grant and loan program that will help make the installation of state-of-the-art, nitrogen-reducing septic systems more affordable.

Bellone said the new systems, which would replace the 360,000 outdated and environmentally harmful septic tanks and leaching systems installed in a majority of homes across the county, are the next step in a years-long initiative to reclaim Long Island’s water.

Brookhaven Town amends nitrogen protection zone law

By Alex Petroski

In June 2016, the Brookhaven Town board voted unanimously to approve a local law proposed by Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) that established nitrogen protection zones within 500 feet of any body of water on or around Long Island. The zones prohibit new structures or dwellings being built in that range from installing cesspools or septic systems, which took effect in January.

At a board meeting last week, an amendment was passed that will allow the board to adjust the former law, which allows for 19 milligrams of nitrogen per liter of water discharged from new septic systems or cesspools. This will come following the release of new technology that will make lowering the amount of nitrogen possible. It is uncertain what the new level may be, but once the town knows what it is, the board will be able to lower the limit immediately with the new amendment. Without the amendment, the limit would have to have waited to be put into effect Dec. 1.

“This law says we’ll meet the standard, but the minute there’s a lower standard, we will go with the lowest possible standard,” Brookhaven Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) said during a public hearing on the amendment April 27.

Mary Anne Johnston of the Affiliated Brookhaven Civic Association commended the town’s actions during the hearing.

When the law was initially passed in 2016, Romaine spoke about the importance of limiting nitrogen in Long Island’s waters.

“We’ve all watched our waters degrade over the last 50 years,” Romaine said after the vote at a town board meeting held on June 9, 2016. “We all know part of the problem is nitrogen…the solutions to this problem are neither easy nor cheap. But doing nothing is not an option; we must act now. Our future depends on us addressing this problem.”

“Water quality is everything to us here — it’s our quality of life, our heritage, our economy, tourism economy, our recreation and what we drink,” Bellone told a roomful of residents in Port Jefferson. “We need to retrofit those homes to protect our environment and reverse decades of water quality decline. We will lose another generation here if this is not done right and we’re very focused on making sure we do this right.”

Under the Suffolk County Septic Improvement Program, Bellone and Deputy County Executive Peter Scully told attendees individual homeowners can apply for grants administered by the county’s department of health services, which will approve permits, perform inspections and supervise system installations. Loans, administered by the nonprofit Community Development Corporation of Long Island, offer homeowners low-cost financing for up to $10,000.

To cover the $17, 850 total cost of installation, eligible homeowners would be given an $11,000 grant — $10,000 for the installation of the individual alternative on-site wastewater treatment systems and $1,000 for a pressurized shallow drain field. Homeowners would pay the balance with a 15-year, fixed 3 percent loan.

The program primarily targets single-family, owner-occupied residences served by a septic system or cesspool. It excludes employees of the county, including elected officials or officeholders.

Charlie McAteer, a retired Port Jefferson Station resident and a member of the Port Jefferson Station/Terryville Civic Association, said his home’s septic system is among the 360,000 that are a few decades old now. He said he and his wife showed up to the town hall meeting to gain more information on the grant program.

“We want to investigate it a bit more — see if it’s viable and economically feasible,” McAteer said. “We just have to do some numbers-crunching and see if it makes sense in our particular parcel and then see if we would qualify.”

Ed Bram, from Port Jefferson, expressed concerns the county isn’t reaching out to the right group of people, as many in the room were already environmentally aware.

“We all think it’s a wonderful idea…so it’s sort of like preaching to the choir,” Bram said. “The general public out there has a different nature of thinking. I think the county is trying their best at doing something for the environment but going about it the wrong way.”

It’s a legitimate concern, Scully responded.

“There’s an education piece to this that people need to come to grips with,” Scully said. “It’s important for people to speak up.”

The County Executive hopes the project can get underway July 1, with 400 homeowners to be selected to receive funding in the first two years of the program.

Homeowners can contact septicdemo@suffolkcountyny.gov. for more information.

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It’s not hard to find dirty spots in our local waters. Photo by Elana Glowatz

There’s no time to waste.

Actually that’s not true — Suffolk County residents have plenty of time to add our own waste to our water supply, and we do it every day.

That’s why it bothers us that Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone’s proposal to charge a $1 water quality protection fee for every 1,000 gallons of water that homes and businesses use will not be on the ballot for voter approval this November.

He has estimated it would generate roughly $75 million each year toward the environmental cause. Normally, new taxes and fees bother us even more, but these dollars would not be just thrown into the general fund. The plan was to put the money toward expanding sewer systems in Suffolk County — a dire need — and reducing the nitrogen pollution in the water we drink and in which different species live.

Much of Suffolk relies on cesspools and septic systems that can leak nitrogen from our waste into the ground. Nitrogen is in the air and water naturally, but high levels are dangerous. One harmful side effect of nitrogen is increased algae growth, which decreases the water’s oxygen supply that fish and other creatures need to live and produces toxins and bacteria that are harmful to humans.

According to Bellone’s administration, state lawmakers would not get on board with the idea to put his water surcharge on the ballot so the voters could make the final decision. Officials said more time was needed before the proposal was brought to a vote.

On the county level, Republican lawmakers also stood strongly against the proposal.

Most people use 80-100 gallons of water each day, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, so some people may have had to pay up to an extra $37 a year under the fee proposal. Big whoop — if it could help us stop poisoning ourselves and the rest of the ecosystem, we’ll pay up.

We’re disappointed this measure won’t be on the ballot this year. But it could be an opportunity for Bellone to show some leadership by making sure progress is made before 2017. Instead of worrying about being disliked for adding $37 to residents’ water bills each year, he should just take the tough action and enact the surcharge. We’ve already waited too long to get rid of our cesspools. Let’s not waste any more time and water.

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