By Colm Ashe

The message from Stony Brook University’s center for clean water technology was clear — it’s time to cut the poop.

Suffolk County’s waters are inundated with nitrogen pollution and the main culprit is wastewater coming from our homes, officials said this week. There are more than 360,000 homes in the county using a 5,000-year-old system for waste management — septic tanks and cesspools. The waste from these systems is leaching into the groundwater, causing high amounts of nitrogen pollution. On June 20, the NYS Center for Clean Water Technology at Stony Brook University proposed the new technologies they aim to implement in order to restore our polluted waters to a healthy state.

The design is simple, officials said: utilizing locally sourced, natural materials to provide a system that is both efficient and economically feasible.

This is not just an environmental issue. Suffolk County’s waters underlie the foundation of the state’s greater economy, from real estate to tourism. If nothing is done to counteract continuous contamination, officials argued, the very identity of Long Island could be compromised.

The center is taking action, and its members shared that action with the public on Thursday, June 23.

“These simple systems, comprised of sand and finely ground wood, are demonstrating an ability to treat household wastewater as well or better than the most advanced wastewater treatment plants,” said Christopher Gobler, the center’s co-director and professor in the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at Stony Brook University. “Similar in footprint and basic functionality to a drain field, the most common form of onsite wastewater dispersal around the country, we call them nitrogen-removing biofilters, and the next step is to pilot them at residences to see if they can consistently perform in more dynamic situations.”

To accompany the high nitrogen-removal rates, these nitrogen-removing biofilters are proving effective in removing other unwanted contaminants from the water, such as pharmaceuticals and personal care products, Gobler said.

Harold Walker, center co-director, professor and chair of the Department of Civil Engineering at Stony Brook University, reinforced the new system’s viability, adding, “they are passive systems by design, which means they are low maintenance and require little energy to operate.”

Biofilters are not the only technology the center is working on. Ever since they were funded by the state environmental protection fund in 2015, their collaborative efforts with leading experts from the public and private sectors have produced several treatment options all in the name of providing cost-effective, high-performance waste-management systems suitable for widespread implementation on Long Island. However, the biofilters end up receiving most of the praise.

According to Richard Amper, executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, the technology “is among the most promising we’ve seen in Long Island’s effort to restore water quality.”

Regardless of the obvious potential, it is still up to Suffolk County to approve the systems for commercial use. In an exclusive interview with TBR News Media, Gobler said, “some systems will be approved this year.”

As part of the Suffolk County Department of Health Services demonstration program, the center should see local testing as early as this fall. Pilot installations are already underway at a test center, Gobler said.