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County Executive Steve Bellone

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

Voters in Suffolk County could soon be faced with deciding whether or not they’d like to pay more for their water to improve its quality.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) brought a big crew of environmentalists and lawmakers with him on Monday 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. If it receives the state’s blessing, the plan could go before Suffolk County residents in a referendum vote in November.

The proposal would establish what Bellone called a water quality protection fee, which would fund the conversion of homes from outdated septic systems to active treatment systems, the county executive said.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 generate 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.

“What we have seen over the decades is a decimation of our surface waters and the latest numbers showing disturbing trends in the groundwater,” Bellone said. “Clearly, the overwhelming source of that nitrogen pollution is from us. We have 360,000 homes on old septic and cesspool systems.”

Bellone said the proposal would supplement similar efforts from New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who established a $383 million investment in expanding sewers in Suffolk County. The governor launched the Center for Clean Water Technology at Stony Brook University and provided funding for the Long Island Nitrogen Action Plan over the past several years to help create recurring revenue for clean water infrastructure.

Richard Amper, executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, endorsed the county proposal as Suffolk County rising to the occasion. He referred to nitrogen as the chief culprit behind the county’s water pollution, coming mostly from wastewater.

“If we don’t take this step, we are putting our collective future at serious risk.”

“Two-thirds of it in Suffolk County is coming from 360,000 homes with 5,000-year-old technology,” he said Monday. “We know what to do about it. We’ve studied it. The public is satisfied that … investment had to be made in studying it. Now it’s time for action.”

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.

Marc Herbst, executive director of the Long Island Contractors’ Association, said the initiative was necessary for the future of the environment.

“It is about building a wastewater treatment system that ensures the environmental integrity of our county, the underlying foundation of our economy and the value of our homes,” he said. “The Long Island Contractors’ Association supports this proposal because if we don’t take this step, we are putting our collective future at serious risk. It is as simple, and crucial, as that.”

The state must authorize the proposal in order for it to be placed on a ballot in November.

State Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) — a known environmental activist — said the measure would do 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. “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.”

The Town of Brookhaven held a public hearing last Thursday night before adopting a low-nitrogen zone for various properties 500 feet from major water bodies, like Setauket and Port Jefferson harbors, requiring all new development or expansions to install low-nitrogen septic systems rather than standard cesspools. Brookhaven Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) endorsed the county plan as well for not only increasing the momentum away from nitrogen pollution, but also for providing voters with the choice.

“I applaud County Executive Bellone for his leadership in advancing this plan to restore water quality across this county and, more importantly, for proposing that the people of Suffolk decide whether the plan should be implemented,” he said. “Though some may disagree with it, no other elected official has offered a plan to reverse nitrogen pollution on this scale.”

Residents gather to discuss drug and heroin use, rehabilitation and laws at the North Shore Drug Awareness Advocates’ monthly meeting. Photo by Giselle Barkley

“Addiction is a family disease.”

That’s what Tracey Budd and social worker Mary Calamia had to say during the North Shore Drug Awareness Advocates’ community event about heroin use on Long Island.

Around 20 residents gathered at the Rocky Point Veterans of Foreign Wars headquarters on Feb. 24 to discuss drug laws, heroin use in the community and how to combat the Island’s heroin issues.

Tracey Budd, of Rocky Point, founded the North Shore Drug Awareness Advocates group to help work with families to try to combat the drug issues on Long Island. Photo by Giselle Barkley
Tracey Budd, of Rocky Point, founded the North Shore Drug Awareness Advocates group to help work with families to try to combat the drug issues on Long Island. Photo by Giselle Barkley

Budd, of Rocky Point, established the North Shore Drug Awareness Advocates group last fall. Her son, Kevin Norris, was one of many heroin users on Long Island before he died of an overdose in September 2012. Budd hoped to educate Long Island communities on drug awareness and establish a support system for drug users and their families who are seeking help, with the creation of this group. She tries to hold a meeting at least once a month.

“I’m hoping that as parents, neighbors, [and] friends, we learn how to advocate [about drug awareness] a little more, rather than putting it on Facebook,” said Budd about residents who have sought help, especially with acquiring Narcan, through social media outlets. She was among several residents, including Dorothy Johnson, who said people need to change how they view heroin users.

Johnson is a member of the Great Bay coalition. She lost her son four years ago to a heroin overdose and has fought to increase drug awareness ever since. For Johnson, heroin and drug users aren’t junkies, but everyday people in need of help.

“It’s not that they’re bad and sitting on a street corner,” Johnson said. “It’s somebody that’s walking around in a suit and tie that comes from a good family.”

Many of these families do not change how they view or deal with their relative once they return from a rehabilitation center. According to Calamia, treating rehabilitated individuals as though they still use heroin or other drugs will only encourage future drug use.

In light of heroin use on Long Island, the Suffolk County Police Department started using Narcan in August 2012, according to Dr. Scott Coyne, chief surgeon for the police department. The anti-overdose medication was used more than 470 times in 2013 and 2014 and 543 times last year. While Narcan allows officials and those trained to administer it to save people who overdose on heroin or opiate-based drugs, public and safety officials said some drug users abuse the system.

Sgt. Keith Olsen, on right, speaks at the North Shore Drug Awareness Advocates’ meeting. Photo by Giselle Barkley
Sgt. Keith Olsen, on right, speaks at the North Shore Drug Awareness Advocates’ meeting. Photo by Giselle Barkley

Capt. William Murphy said the police department has saved an unidentified Mastic Beach resident around 11 times using Narcan. Councilman Kevin LaValle (R-Selden) added that one woman who got into a car crash on Middle Country Road and Nicolls Road a few weeks ago demanded Narcan from First Responders. According to LaValle, officials can’t test a resident’s blood after receiving Narcan.

Currently, patients can go home shortly after officials administer the medication. Budd is trying to establish a 72-hour hold for these patients, which will allows hospitals to monitor patients following the procedure.

She also helped establish a 24-hour hotline for drug users and their families or friends who are looking for help, after she attended a conference at the Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone’s (D) office last September. That hotline should be up and running, according to Budd, by April 1.

“Sometimes I feel bad for the young kids we’re locking up,” said Sgt. Keith Olsen of the SCPD. “They need help. They’re not the dealer. They’re not turning it over. They’re not the ones causing trouble.”