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Sewage

A view of the downtown Kings Park area. File photo by Victoria Espinoza

The Kings Park revitalization effort received inspiring news this week, as New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) announced his intention to invest $40 million to build sewers in Smithtown and Kings Park.

“These major, transformative investments in Long Island’s core infrastructure invest in the future resiliency and strength of the region,” Cuomo said. “Vital water infrastructure projects will support environmental sustainability and bolster economic growth. With these projects, we equip Long Island with the tools and resources to drive commercial activity, create jobs and build a stronger Long Island for generations to come.”

Sean Lehman, president of the Kings Park Civic Association, said before the governor’s announcement that revitalization of the Kings Park downtown seemed impossible without enough money to build a sewer system there.

“Any movement depends on [Kings Park] getting sewer money,” Lehman said in a phone interview. “Everything hinges on it.” Lehman estimated the hamlet would need “between $16 and $20 million just to bring sewage to the business district in Kings Park.”

Kings Park Civic Association Vice President Linda Henninger said this money marks a new chapter of the revitalization effort.

“This is really the beginning of not only revitalization of our hamlet, which holds so much potential, but we shouldn’t forget the positive impact it will have on the environment,” she said in an email. “Sewering is not only important for economic reasons, but also environmental. We’re very happy and look forward to rolling up our sleeves and continue to work hard for and with the community.”

Supervisor Pat Vecchio (R) agreed hearing of the possibility of receiving funds is a step toward bettering the Kings Park and Smithtown communities.

“It’s a great thing,” he said in a phone interview. “I’ve been asking the county for the last three years for sewers in Kings Park and Smithtown.”

At a recent civic association meeting, the group was also enthused by news that Suffolk County put forward an economic stimulus package including $200,000 in grant money for Kings Park revitalization efforts.

“We’re excited by this,” Lehman said. “Anything that can help us move forward is good, and we appreciate the county’s effort.”

Vecchio said the town has not yet drafted a specific plan on how they will use the $200,000 grant from the county, intended to study traffic impacts and parking for revitalization, since no real specifics have been given to the board yet.

In November of last year, the civic association presented the Smithtown board with its plan for revitalization, created by Vision Long Island, an organization that works to create more livable, economically stable and environmentally responsible areas on Long Island. The plan studied the demographics, and commercial areas of Kings Park, and includes recommendation and suggestions from the many meetings the organization had with Kings Park residents.

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Discharging homes’ wastewater into sewer systems could keep harmful substances out of our water supply. File photo

Our water supply is pooped.

Hundreds of thousands of homes in Suffolk County run on their own septic systems or cesspools, which leak nitrogen from waste into the soil and, thus, into our groundwater and other water sources. Elevated nitrogen levels are dangerous because they mess with our ecosystem — one effect is promoting 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.

Sewers are a more convenient and modern technology for areas with populations at least as dense as Suffolk County. But, more importantly, sewer systems are also a crucial line of defense for our drinking water and the healthy waterways we treasure.

Legislators and community members complain all the time about how Suffolk needs to hook up more properties to sewer systems, but they also say there’s no money to do it. County Executive Steve Bellone’s proposal to charge an additional $1 per 1,000 gallons of water used — and to put those dollars into a special account dedicated to sewering Suffolk — could help.

The funds collected would be used in conjunction with other funding, such as from Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s $383 million initiative to support clean water infrastructure.

To put Bellone’s proposed surcharge into perspective, that’s $1 for every 50 days of showers for a family of four, based on average water usage numbers from the U.S. Geological Survey. It’s another $1 for roughly every 333 toilet flushes. Add $1 for every 40 loads of laundry in a newer model of washing machine.

For a single-person measurement, each person uses about 80-100 gallons of water each day, according to the federal agency. Those on the higher end of the spectrum, then, would be dishing out $1 every 10 days with the goal of a healthier environment — or just shy of $37 a year.

Reaching deeper into taxpayers’ pockets is not ideal, but there is simply no other way to produce sewer funding of the magnitude Suffolk County needs without asking the public to chip in somehow.

Bellone’s proposal needs state approval before the measure can go onto ballots in November for voters to weigh in. We hope our neighbors would support the surcharge.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone speaks during SepticSmart Week earlier this year. File photo by Victoria Espinoza

Suffolk County is getting more serious about a smelly situation.

Sixteen months ago, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone (D) bumped water quality issues to the top of his to-do list. Now, the Suffolk County Health Department is reviewing existing sewage treatment plant sites, its enforcement and possible means to strengthen current regulatory programs.

Suffolk County Health Commissioner Dr. James Tomarken said the program could be more effective despite the efforts of wastewater management staff members.

“As a part of a comprehensive approach to improve water quality, it makes sense to review our existing regulatory programs in consultation with governmental agencies and other stakeholders to identify areas where those programs can be improved,” Tomarken said in a press release.

According to Peter Scully, deputy county executive, there aren’t any specific steps to improve the programs yet.

Earlier last month the health department met with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and the Suffolk County Water Authority, on Nov. 5 and Nov. 16, respectively. Scully said the department addressed regulation efforts and compliance issues with the DEC while they tackled water quality concerns and siting requirements for the sewage treatment plants.

According to the county executive’s website, there’s an excess of 200,000 on-site residential wastewater disposal systems in environmentally compromised areas in the county as of last year. Reviewing the existing programs is an extension of Bellone’s Reclaim Our Waters Initiative. He announced the initiative in March of 2014 to address the county’s poor water quality.

Nitrogen pollution is rampant in the water, which not only affects the water quality but also the organisms living in these waters. The Town of Brookhaven took on similar efforts to address Brookhaven’s declining water quality. In October, the town issued its own study about Long Island’s water, starting with the Setauket Harbor. While that study will take up to a year, conducting the review on the county’s regulatory programs may take several months, according to Scully.

The sewage plant application process will also be evaluated. The health department receives around three applications annually. The review will examine whether the department has adequate penalties for those who don’t comply with sewage plant siting regulations. The regulation process of new facilities or those under order is also up for examination. Scully said this is to help make the facilities better for the environment.

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

By John Kominicki

Cutting the ribbon on a new shopping center used to be an elected official’s most-prized photo op. Today, it’s unveiling a septic system install.

That’s real progress on a couple of fronts. First, there is scientific evidence that suggests Long Island will actually sink if anybody builds another shopping center here. More importantly, it shows that sewage has finally taken its rightful place, front and center, in the minds of local pols.

And about time. The region’s aquifers, which supply residents with almost 140 billion gallons of fresh water a year, are showing signs of real distress, with rising nitrogen levels from wastewater and storm runoff that’s laced with lawn, golf course and farm fertilizers.

Phosphorus is also on the rise, and new pollutants, from flushed pharmaceutical and personal care products, have been found in our drinking water lately.

I’ll pause for a collective, “Eeew.”

What’s so bad about nitrogen, you ask? Basically, that it thrives on oxygen, which, as you may remember from high school, is a pretty important part of H2O. Get too much nitrogen in your water supply and you have to worry about bad things, like methemoglobinemia, which is better known as Blue Baby Syndrome. The name pretty much tells you everything you need to know.

Nitrogen in our rivers, lakes and seas also fertilizes oxygen-sucking algae, which have been known to cause giant oceanic dead zones, completely devoid of other plant life or aquatic species. The algae can also choke out coastal grasses and other plant life that slow down the tidal waves associated with storms that have names.

Storms with names like “Sandy,” for instance.

Nitrogen levels are a problem for both our counties, but in different ways. Nassau’s issue is the outflow from its waste treatment facilities, which is discharged way too close to shore and is responsible for the spread of an especially foul-smelling, marsh-killing algae called sea lettuce. The county would like to shoot the effluent a couple miles out to sea, but it needs financial help – $600 million ought to do it – to get the job done.

Maybe some of our friends in Albany are reading this.

Suffolk’s problem is on the intake. With huge swaths of the county still unsewered – for more, do a Google search of “Southwest Sewer District Scandal” – residents rely largely on septic tanks and cesspools, which do little more than strain waste through the soil and, eventually, back into the aquifer.

Another, “Eeew” is appropriate.

Now, back to the photo op, where we saw Suffolk Executive Steve Bellone (D) posing recently beside a large hole in the yard of Nesconset’s Jim Minet, one of 19 lucky winners of the county’s advanced wastewater treatment systems lottery. The prize: A $15,000 Hydro Action “extended aeration” system that keeps micro-organisms at the buffet longer, reducing exiting nitrogen levels by as much as 80 percent.

Nineteen advanced wastewater treatment systems are a nice start, but with 400,000 septic tanks in the county, the program obviously has a ways to go. What’s important is that Bellone and Nassau counterpart Ed Mangano (R) are proactively working the clean water issue and lobbying mightily for the state and federal financial aid needed to move local efforts along.

Good on them. Perhaps they understand that elected office is, itself, a lot like a sewer.

What you get out of it, after all, depends almost entirely on what you put into it.

The author works as the editor of www.InnovateLI.com and is also a columnist for the Long Island Index blog, a project of the Rauch Foundation.

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.