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Septic System

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.”

Officials celebrate the installation of a new septic system in Nesconset. Photo from Bellone’s office

Nineteen households won, but one winner on Laura Court in Nesconset was the first to reap the benefits.

The county installed its first advanced on-site septic system last Thursday, Aug. 20, via the Suffolk County Advanced Septic Pilot Program Lottery as part of the Reclaim Our Water initiative to improve water quality, restore natural storm barriers and implement on-site wastewater treatment systems. County Executive Steve Bellone (D) called it a significant step in improving the quality of water on Long Island.

“This pilot program will demonstrate the benefits of protecting one of our great natural resources and will provide individual homeowners as well as the rest of Suffolk County an opportunity to improve both the environment of their homes as well as that of Suffolk County,” he said.

The 19 systems were donated by four national manufacturers: Hydro-Action Industries, BUSSE Green Technologies, Norweco and Orenco Systems. The advanced wastewater treatment systems are valued at up to $15,000 per system.

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