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septic systems

Co-Director of Stony Brook University's Center for Clean Water Technology Howard Walker demonstrates how sand is used in a prototype of a new Nitrogen Reducing Biofilter at press conference in Shirley April 26. Photo by Kyle Barr

Scientists and engineers from Stony Brook University are planning to use two plentiful Long Island resources to save its coastal waters from nitrogen pollution: sand and wood chips.

Members of the New York State-funded Center for Clean Water Technology at Stony Brook University unveiled their nitrogen-reducing biofilter April 26 at a Suffolk County-owned home in Shirley.

“We have made a huge commitment to protect and preserve our land as we are protecting the groundwater below,” said New York state Sen. Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson). “We are zeroing in on our water, and we are making a major commitment with systems like these.”

“The results that we’ve gained have been very exciting.”

— Howard Walker

Through the system, waste from the home is first pumped into a septic tank. After the septic tank the effluent is moved into a separate system that trickles down by gravity, first going through a sand layer where bacteria turns the nitrogen into nitrite and nitrate. The waste then goes through another layer of sand and wood chips designed to turn the nitrite/nitrate into nitrogen gas that will go into the atmosphere, instead of into the ground and thus Long Island’s water.

The system being built in Shirley is one of three the center is testing as part of Suffolk County’s bid to create a nitrogen reducing home wastewater system.

“We have outstanding professionals who are helping to guide these efforts,” Deputy County Executive Peter Scully said. “We should be able to involve ourselves in the designing of the next generation of this technology, bringing the cost down [and] making the technology more effective.”

One of the biggest problems for Long Island’s coastal waters has been hypoxia, a state caused by excess nitrogen, where the oxygen level in water is below the necessary levels to support life. It affects fish, clams and any underwater plant life. Last year co-director of the Center for Clean Water Technology, Christopher Gobler and other researchers from the Long Island Clean Water Partnership, concluded there were cases of hypoxia in Stony Brook Harbor, Northport Bay, Oyster Bay, Hempstead Bay as well as waters all along both the North and South shores.

In 2015 Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) called nitrogen pollution the county’s “environmental public enemy number one.” Since then the county has worked with local scientists and engineers to craft technology that could replace Long Island’s old cesspool and septic tanks.

The benchmark for total amount of nitrogen allowed from any of these new systems is 19 milligrams of nitrogen per liter. Co-director at the Center for Clean Water Technology, Howard Walker, said that initial tests of the system have reached well below that threshold.

“We’re seeing less than 10 milligrams per liter of total nitrogen coming from the systems in the prototypes we’ve been testing for the past year and a half,” Walker said. “The results that we’ve gained have been very exciting.”

“We are zeroing in on our water, and we are making a major commitment with systems like these.”

— Ken LaValle

The purpose of the prototypes is to gauge the effectiveness of the system as well as find ways to reduce the price and size of the filter. The center hopes the system will be affordable since all the parts could be bought from plumbing or pool supply stores. Gobler said the system currently costs several tens of thousands of dollars in its prototype stage, but he hopes the cost will come down with more tests.

“This is nonproprietary — all other systems are built off of Long Island and then brought here, this one is using Long Island materials, Long Island labor,” Gobler said. “Ultimately without having to run a company or without having to buy something off the shelf, there’s a promise to make these highly affordable.”

Other nitrogen filters have problems when it comes to people flushing any kind of bleach, pharmaceuticals or other harmful chemicals because they kill off the bacteria that remove the nitrogen from the effluent, according to Gobler. He said the design of SBU’s nitrogen-reducing biofilter will be less prone to failure because the waste is spread over a large area, and because it seeps through the layers of sand at a slower rate the killing effect of chemicals would be reduced.

“One bad flush is not going to upturn the apple cart,” Gobler said. “We’ve tested more than 30 different organic compounds, pharmaceuticals, personal care products, drugs, and in all cases its removing 90
percent of those compounds, sometimes 99 percent. In certain cases, it’s just as good or even better than a sewage treatment plant.”

The Center for Clean Water Technology hopes to have concrete results on its prototypes in a year’s time. After that a provisional phase would take place where the center would install another 20 filters in other parts of Long Island.

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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