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Nitrogen

Peter Scully, Suffolk County deputy county executive and water czar, responds to questions from  TBR News Media’s editorial staff:

1. You’ve been called Suffolk County’s water czar. Why does Suffolk County need a water czar?

The need for the county to have a high-level point person to advance the water quality agenda of County Executive Steve Bellone [D] is a result of two factors: The high priority that the county executive has placed on water quality issues, and the tremendous progress his administration has made over the past seven years in building a solid foundation to reverse decades of nitrogen pollution that has resulted primarily from the lack of sewers in Suffolk County and reliance on cesspools and septic systems that discharge untreated wastewater into the environment. The county executive succeeded in landing $390 million in post-Hurricane Sandy resiliency funding to eliminate 5,000 cesspools along river corridors on the South Shore by connecting parcels to sewers, and the county’s success in creating a grant program to make it affordable for homeowners to replace cesspools and septic systems with new nitrogen-reducing septic systems in areas where sewers are not a cost-effective solution, prompted the state to award Suffolk County $10 million to expand the county’s own Septic Improvement Program. These are the largest investments in water quality Suffolk has seen in 50 years, and the county executive saw the need to appoint a high-level quarterback to oversee the implementation of these programs.

 

2. Which groundwater contaminants are the highest priorities for Suffolk County? 

In 2014, the county executive declared nitrogen to be water quality public enemy No. 1. The nitrogen in groundwater is ultimately discharged into our bays, and about 70 percent of this nitrogen comes from on-site wastewater disposal (septic) systems. Excess nutrients have created crisis conditions, causing harmful algal blooms, contributing to fish kills and depleting dissolved oxygen necessary for health aquatic life. They have also made it impossible to restore our once nationally significant hard clam and bay scallop fisheries, have devastated submerged aquatic vegetation and weakened coastal resiliency through reduction of wetlands. Nitrogen also adversely impacts quality of drinking water, especially in areas with private wells, although public water supply wells consistently meet drinking water standards for nitrogen.

Other major contaminants of concern include volatile organic compounds, known as VOCs. For example, there is perchloroethlyene, historically from dry cleaners; and petroleum constituents — most recently MTBE, a gasoline additive — from fuel storage and transfer facilities.

Then there are pesticides. Active ingredients such as chlordane, aldicarb and dacthal have been banned, but some legacy contamination concerns exist, especially for private wells. Some currently registered pesticides are appearing in water supplies at low levels, including simazine/atrazine, imidacloprid and metalaxyl.

Emerging contaminants include PFAS, historically used in firefighting foams, water repellents, nonstick cookware; and 1,4-dioxane, an industrial solvent stabilizer also present at low levels in some consumer products. 

 

3. Are the chemicals coming from residential or industrial sites?

Contamination can emanate from a variety of sites, including commercial, industrial and residential properties. Many of the best-known cleanup sites are dealing with legacy impacts from past industrial activity. Examples include Grumman in Bethpage, Lawrence Aviation in Port Jefferson Station, Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton and the Naval Weapons Industrial Reserve Plant in Calverton. There have been hundreds of Superfund sites on Long Island. Fortunately, most are legacy sites and new Superfund sites are relatively rare.

More recently, the use of firefighting foam has resulted in Superfund designations at the Suffolk County Firematics site in Yaphank, Francis S. Gabreski Air National Guard Base in Westhampton, and East Hampton Airport. The foam was used properly at the time of discharge, but it was not known that PFAS would leach and contaminate groundwater.

The county’s 2015 Comprehensive Water Resources Management Plan found that some chemicals, such as VOCs, continue to increase in frequency of detection and concentration. While some of this is attributable to legacy industrial plumes, experts believe that residential and small commercial sites are partially responsible for contamination. This is partly because any substances that are dumped into a toilet or drain will reach the environment, and because solvents move readily through our sandy aquifer. Septic waste is, of course a major of contamination. Residential properties can be also responsible for other pollution, such as nitrogen from fertilizers and pesticides.

4. Which industries currently generate the most groundwater pollution in Suffolk County? 

The county’s Department of Health Services Division of Environmental Quality staff advise that, historically, the major contributors to groundwater pollution in the county were dry cleaners, and fuel storage and transfer facilities. However, current dry cleaning practices have minimized any possible groundwater discharges, and modern fuel facilities are engineered to more stringent code requirements that have substantially eliminated catastrophic releases. Low-level discharges are still a concern, and are the subject of the county’s VOC action plan to increase inspections and optimize regulatory compliance.

There are thousands of commercial and industrial facilities, most of which have the potential to pollute — for example, with solvent cleaners. Best management practices and industrial compliance inspections are key to minimizing and eliminating further contamination.

 

5. The word “ban” is often a dirty word in politics, but do you see benefits to banning certain products, and/or practices, for the sake of protecting the county’s drinking water supply? (The bans on DDT, lead in gasoline and HFCS, for example, were very effective at addressing environmental and human health concerns.) 

Policymakers have not hesitated to ban the use of certain substances — DDT, lead in gasoline, chlordane, MTBE — in the face of evidence that the risks associated with the continued introduction of a chemical into the environment outweigh the benefits from a public health or environmental standpoint. Based on health concerns, I expect that there will be active discussion in the years ahead about the merits of restricting the use of products that introduce emerging contaminants like 1,4-dioxane and PFCs into the environment.

 

6. If people had more heightened awareness, could we slow or even eliminate specific contaminants? As consumers, can people do more to protect groundwater? 

There is no question that heightened awareness about ways in which everyday human activities impact the environment leads people to change their behaviors in ways that can reduce the release of contaminants into the environment. A good example is the county’s Septic Improvement Program, which provides grants and low interest loans for homeowners who choose to voluntarily replace their cesspools or septic systems with new nitrogen-reducing technology. More than 1,000 homeowners have applied for grants under the program, which set a record in October with more 100 applications received.

If a home is not connected to sewers, a homeowner can replace their cesspool or septic system with an innovative/alternative on-site wastewater treatment system. Suffolk County, New York State and several East End towns are offering grants which can make it possible for homeowners to make this positive change with no significant out-of-pocket expense. Consumers can choose to not flush bleaches or toxic/hazardous materials down the drain or into their toilets. Consumers can also take care to deliver any potentially toxic or hazardous household chemicals to approved Stop Throwing Out Pollutants program sites. Homeowners can choose not to use fertilizers or pesticides, or to opt for an organic, slow-release fertilizer at lowest label setting rates.

 

7. Can you offer examples of products to avoid or practices to adopt that would better protect the drinking water supply? 

Consumers can choose to not flush bleaches or household hazardous materials down the drain or into their toilets. Consumers can also take care to deliver any potentially toxic or hazardous household chemicals to approved STOP program sites. Homeowners can choose not to use fertilizers or pesticides, or to opt for an organic, slow release fertilizer at lowest label setting rates.

 

8. Aside from banning products or chemicals, and raising awareness, how do you address the issue?

Promoting the use of less impactful alternatives to products which have been shown to have a significant and/or unanticipated impact on public health or the environment, on a voluntary basis, is a less contentious approach than banning a substance or placing restrictions on its use through a legislative or rulemaking process. Such an approach should only be taken with the understanding that its success, value and significance will depend in large part on public awareness and education.

 

9. What about product labeling, similar to the U.S. Office of the Surgeon General warnings about cigarettes, or carcinogens in California, etc.? Can the county require products sold to include a groundwater contamination warning?

The question of whether the county Legislature has authority to implement labeling requirements could be better addressed by an attorney.

 

10. People, including some elected officials and people running for public office, sometimes say that sewage treatment plants remove all contaminants from wastewater. Can you set the record straight? What chemicals, including radioactive chemicals, are and are not removed from wastewater via sewage treatment?

Tertiary wastewater treatment plants are designed primarily to remove nitrogen, in addition to biodegradable organic matter. However, wastewater treatment is also effective at removing many volatile organic compounds. Some substances, such as 1,4-dioxane, are resistant to treatment and require advanced processes for removal. Evidence shows that the use of horizontal leaching structures instead of conventional drainage rings may facilitate removal of many pharmaceuticals and personal care products, known as PPCPs. Advanced treatment technologies, such as membrane bioreactors, are also being tested for efficacy of removal of PPCPs.

Staff advise that the mere presence of chemicals in wastewater in trace amounts does not necessarily indicate the existence of a public health risk. All wastewater treatment must treat chemicals to stringent federal and state standards. In some cases, such as for emerging contaminants, specific standards do not exist. In those cases, the unspecified organic contaminant requirement of 50 parts per billion is commonly applied.

 

11. Can you provide an example of a place where residential and industrial groundwater contamination concerns were reversed or adequately addressed?

There are numerous examples, mostly under the jurisdiction of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency or NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, in which groundwater concerns have been addressed through treatment to remove contaminants. Because health and safety are always the most important issues, the first priority is typically to make sure that people who live near an impacted site have a safe supply of drinking water. In areas served by public water suppliers — Suffolk County Water Authority or a local water district — this is not usually an issue, since public water suppliers are highly regulated and are required to test water supply wells regularly. In areas where people are not connected to a public water system, and rely instead on private wells, the Suffolk County Department of Health Services will work with the water supplier to identify properties that are not connected to a public water system and then contact homeowners to urge them to have their water tested at no charge to make sure that it is safe for consumption. 

Over the past several years, Suffolk County, New York State and the Suffolk County Water Authority have worked together to connect hundreds of homes that had relied on private wells to the public water system, to make sure people have access to safe drinking water.

 

12. Are you hopeful about addressing the issues? 

I am hopeful and optimistic about the success of efforts to reverse the ongoing degradation of water quality that has resulted from reliance on cesspools and septic systems. For the first time in Long Island’s history, environmentalists, business leaders, scientists, organized labor and the building trades all agree that the long-term threat that has resulted from the lack of sewers to both the environment and economy is so great that a long-term plan to address the need for active wastewater treatment is not an option, but a necessity. Experience shows that public awareness can be a significant factor in driving public policy.

Anthony Palumbo (R-New Suffolk) co-hosts a forum on water quality Nov. 19. Photo by David Luces

The New York State Assembly Minority Task Force on Water Quality hosted an informational forum at the Mount Sinai Rose Caracappa Senior Center Nov. 19 to discuss the condition of the state’s water sources, address emerging contaminants and prioritize and fix aging infrastructure, but some environmental activists disagree with the officials positions. 

State assemblymen Anthony Palumbo (R-New Suffolk), Joe DeStefano (R-Medford) and Dan Stec (R-Queensbury), took feedback from community members, stakeholders, environmental experts, among others to assist the group in its efforts to develop long-term solutions to those issues. 

“If we had a different model that said that the use of the water should be returned to nature as clean as we got it [then] we wouldn’t have this problem — and present model.”

— Kevin McDonald

“We all know how important water is — we are here to listen and learn,” DeStefano said. “Hopefully we can have a spirited conversation on the things that are important to you and what we need to do to make those things come to fruition.”

Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, said Long Island and the state is in a better place than it was five years ago but acknowledges there’s still work to be done. 

“Let’s go to some facts here. We need to treat our sewage in 2019, as you’ve heard we don’t necessarily do that on Long Island,” she said. “Close to 400,000 are still on outdated septic systems which is virtually untreated sewage.”

Esposito brought up harmful algal blooms that are being found throughout Long Island’s coastal waters. She said due to increased nitrogen concerns, which leaks into the local waterways through outdated septic systems and from fertilizer, as just two examples, these algae blooms are spreading to other parts of the state. 

“It is killing off the shellfish industry — people are calling us asking why their water looks like coffee,” she said. 

Palumbo agreed the main issue was excess nitrogen.

“What would you attribute for all the increase in algal blooms and water quality issues?” Palumbo asked. “You could say it is a direct result of excess nitrogen because it’s ‘Miracle-Gro’ essentially that makes this grow at such an alarming rate. It’s a concern for me because clearly nitrogen has been the boogeyman.”

Esposito also mentioned blue green algae being found in all parts of the state, including the Albany drinking reserve, which attacks the liver and could potentially cause liver failure.

The executive director praised Suffolk County’s septic improvement program, saying residents need to replace their old septic systems with new technology, though at the same time current sewage treatment plants don’t treat volatile organic chemicals, 1,4 dioxane, pharmaceutical drugs, pesticides or chemicals found in hair products. 

“It’s going to take time and money, but what plan does not take time and money?” she asked. 

A number of local residents disagreed with scientists’ findings, with a few  skeptical of the recent nitrogen findings on Long Island, one calling it “a naturally functioning
occurrence.”

One resident criticized a map from the Center for Clean Water Technology at Stony Brook University showing the impacts of sewage pollution and blue green algae.  

“It has been overstated and overexaggerated. We have looked at the data over the last five years and there is no trend of increase in nitrogen,” he said. 

Kevin McDonald, conservation project director of The Nature Conservancy, on the other hand said we have to reduce nitrogen use. 

“Close to 400,000 are still on outdated septic systems which is virtually untreated sewage.”

— Adrienne Esposito

“It’s a global problem, it’s a national problem, it’s a regional problem. Any rational person would say in a place as populated as Long Island, it is probably a problem as well,” he said. 

Similarly to Esposito, McDonald criticized how the county treats water.  

“If we had a different model that said that the use of the water should be returned to nature as clean as we got it [then] we wouldn’t have this problem — and present model,” he said. “Instead we can use how you want, pollute and dump it back into the environment.”  

In 2014, Suffolk County asked IBM to look at how it could treat water better and manage a water system for the 21st century. McDonald said the corporation told the county to treat water delivery and treatment as a single concept. 

He said the current model is based on selling as much water as it can.  

“That’s how we have the problem we have now, part of the mess is from us and we have to fix it,” McDonald said.

Local legislators and members of the New York State Center for Clean Water Technology at SBU were on hand for its ribbon cutting celebration July 9. Photo by David Luces

A new research facility at Stony Brook University aims to develop innovative technologies in the fight to improve the quality of water on Long Island and help rid nitrogen in wastewater in an effort to protect drinking water.

The inside of the NYS Center for Clean Water Technology at Stony Brook University Photo by David Luces

On July 9, the New York State Center for Clean Water Technology at SBU officially opened the new research site named the Wastewater Research & Innovation Facility. The WRIF will have nitrogen-removing technologies to clean wastewater. The new facility is situated close to a county wastewater pumping station.

“We all know how important water is to Long Island, we know our only source of drinking water is below our feet,” said Chris Gobler, director, NYS Center for Clean Water Technology. “This facility is designed to bring the next generation of nitrogen reducing and removing biofilters [also called NRBs] that will be smaller and more effective and more widespread.”

The WRIF’s main area is a trailer full of nitrogen-removing biofilters made up of two levels: a layer of sand on top and a layer of wood chips on the bottom. Wastewater flows down, and each layer take out the nitrogen as it goes through.

“Our focus is to take what we have installed in the field, these NRBs and make them smaller and want to make it more affordable,” said Frank Russo, associate director for wastewater initiatives, NYS Center for Clean Water Technology. “The only way we can do that on a scale like this is to do experiments first in a set environment and test all the theories we find in our research.”

There are 22 SBU students and researchers on staff at the new facility. A secondary trailer on the property allows them to conduct experiments and research at a test tube level.

The endgame of those experiments is to eventually install these filters in homes and businesses, so it can help reduce nitrogen pollution.

Russo said it will take a five-year process before they go full scale. He stated that it is a county requirement that before anything is to be installed, you have to show the county that it is a proven technology, and it will last a long time.

The associate director hopes these filters along with a home septic system will one day take the place of a cesspool.

The opening of the new facility, comes a year after the center installed three prototype filters in homes throughout Long Island. The center has also been busy with other projects, including constructing a wetland in Cold Spring Harbor that is designed to treat wastewater and nitrogen levels.

Gobler stressed the need for reducing nitrogen pollution, stating that nearly 75 percent of Suffolk homes are not connected to a sewage system. The problem arises when the nitrogen-contaminated wastewater is stored into cesspools or outdated septic systems.

“The center is going to help address and solve the nitrogen problem on Long Island, but perhaps across the country and maybe even around the world,” said Carrie Meek-Gallagher, regional director of the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation.

In 2017, the county began urging residents to make the switch to new, updated septic systems under the Suffolk County Septic Improvement Program with the help of grants.

As of July 1, Suffolk County residents who voluntarily decide to replace their cesspools will need to replace them with a system consisting of a septic tank and leaching pool at a minimum, according to a June 20 TBR News Media article. Contractors will need to register the system with the Department of Health Services. While residents can choose a conventional septic system, another option is an advanced device that removes more nitrogen. County grants of up to $20,000 are available for residents who qualify. There is also an additional state grant of up to $10,000, which can mean a total of up to $30,000.

By Donna Deedy

[email protected]

“It’s more than a pretty garden,” said Chris Clapp, a marine scientist for The Nature Conservancy. “It’s a biological process that relies on plants, wood chips and microbes to remove nitrogen in wastewater before it flows back into the environment.”

On June 24, County Executive Steve Bellone (D) joined Clapp with a conglomerate of representatives from both government and the private sector at The Nature Conservancy’s Upland Farms Sanctuary in Cold Spring Harbor to unveil a state-of-the-art method for reducing and eliminating nitrogen from wastewater. 

The county expects the new system to be a replacement for cesspools and septic systems, which are blamed for the seeping of nitrogen into Long Island waterways, causing red tides, dead zones and closed beaches.

County Executive Steve Bellone and Nancy Kelley of The Nature Conservancy plant the new garden at Upland Farms.

The issue is a serious concern, Bellone said, as he introduced the county’s Deputy Executive Peter Scully, who is spearheading the county’s Reclaim Our Water Initiative and serves as the Suffolk’s water czar. “Anytime a government appoints a water czar, you know you have problems to address.”

Scully, formerly the director for the Long Island region of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, said six other septic alternatives are currently approved.    

Long Island is reportedly one of the most densely populated locations in the country without adequate wastewater treatment. Currently, there are 360,000 antiquated cesspools and septic systems. The county expects to set nitrogen reduction targets for watershed areas where replacement holds the most benefit. 

The technique, called a vegetated circulating gravel system, is composed of an underground network that essentially connects the drains and toilets of a home or office to plant life and microbial action. It works in two stages to denitrify the wastewater. The first phase discharges wastewater into an underground gravel bed covered with a surprisingly small garden of native plants that takes up nitrogen through its roots. The water is then circulated into an underground box of wood chips that convert the remaining nitrogen into gas, before it’s circulated back to the gravel bed. Once the water is denitrified, it’s dispersed through a buried leaching field. 

The county partnered with the Nature Conservancy to develop and implement the system for its Upland Farms Sanctuary. The sanctuary is located a half-mile from Cold Spring Harbor, where water quality has worsened during the last 12 years to the point where the state is officially proposing to designate it an impaired water body. 

“The Conservancy is proud to stand alongside the county and our partners to celebrate this exciting new system that taps into the power of nature to combat the nitrogen crisis, putting us on a path to cleaner water,” said Nancy Kelley, Long Island chapter director for The Nature Conservancy.  

During the experimental phase the system reduced by half the amount of nitrogen discharged from wastewater. A similar technique has been effective at removing up to 90% in other parts of the country. The system’s designers at Stony Brook University’s Center for Clean Water Technology aim to completely remove nitrogen from discharges.  The Upland Farms offices and meeting hall system, which encompasses 156 square feet,  serves the equivalent of two to three homes. 

Suffolk County Legislator William “Doc” Spencer (D-Centerport) said that denitrification efforts work. The Centerport Yacht Club’s beach was closed for seven years due to water quality issues and reopened in 2015 after the Northport sewer plant upgraded to a denitrification system. Improvements to the harbor storm drain discharges, and a public lawn care campaign about curbing the use of fertilizers, also reportedly helped. 

The county has reached a critical juncture and beginning July 1, its new sanitary code for septic systems takes effect, which permits only denitrifying technology.

Justin Jobin, who works on environmental projects with the Suffolk County Department of Health Services, said that he expects to gain approval for a pilot program to accelerate the vegetated circulating gravel system’s public introduction, which could be approved as soon as this summer.  The design can be modified, its developers said, to serve single homes or large businesses. In addition to removing nitrogen, the system can also naturally filter out pharmaceuticals and personal care products.  Its impacts on 1,4-dioxane are being studied. 

Visit www.ReclaimOurWater.info for additional information. 

Photos by Donna Deedy

Suffolk County demonstrates new denitrifying septic systems installed in county resident's homes. Photo from Suffolk County executive’s office

People enrolled in county septic program say it’s political

Suffolk homeowners, who received county grants to install nitrogen-reducing septic systems as part of the county’s septic program, are facing the reality of additional tax burdens and payments after they received IRS 1099 tax forms in the mail.

Participants in the Suffolk County Septic Improvement Program, which helped install prototype home septic systems that filter out nitrogen in participants homes, were told since the program’s inception in 2017 that only the contractors who did the installation of the systems would need to declare the grant money as taxable income because they received disbursement of funds from the county. 

This year, the office of Suffolk County Comptroller John Kennedy Jr. (R) sent tax forms to the program participants, and in many cases both homeowners and contractors received 1099s for the same job, despite a legal opinion by the county’s tax counsel that advised that the tax forms go to the companies that received the funds, not homeowners. 

SBU’s Christopher Gobler, with Dick Amper, discusses alarming trends for LI’s water bodies at a Sept. 25 press conference. Photo by Kyle Barr

In response, Deputy County Executive Peter Scully sent a letter to the comptroller’s office on March 14 requesting that Kennedy rescinds the 1099 forms issued to homeowners. After getting no response, Scully sent a second letter on March 26 asking Kennedy again to rescind the 1099s and mentioned since the first letter there had been new information that had come to light in the issue. 

Scully stated that the county’s Department of Health Services has confirmed that some of the homeowners who received 1099s have declared the grants as income and like the contractors will be paying taxes on the same grants. 

“It boggles the mind that anyone can believe that having both homeowners and installers declaring the same grants as income and having taxes paid by both parties on the same disbursement of funding is an acceptable outcome,” the deputy county executive said in a statement. 

In a Newsday article earlier this month, Kennedy said he planned to ask the Internal Revenue Service for a private letter ruling on the matter. Scully said that would be unnecessary, citing again the county’s legal counsel advice and other municipalities who have similar programs and are structured the same way. The letter ruling would cost close to $30,000 and could take more than a year, Scully added. 

Some residents who are enrolled in the program have claimed Kennedy, who recently announced he is running against County Executive Steve Bellone (D) in the next election, is politicizing the issue and potentially sabotaging the program. 

“I have no doubt in my mind,” Tim Sheehan of Shelter Island. “I don’t understand the rationale behind double taxing participants besides politicizing water safety and punishing homeowners for doing the right thing.” 

The Shelter Island resident was one of the early applicants of the program and had an advanced septic system installed in his home August 2018. He said without the help of county and town grants he and his wife would’ve not been able to afford the upgrade. 

The deadline to file taxes is April 15.

While Sheehan expected to pay taxes on the town grant, he didn’t anticipate the county liability. He said he is facing close to a $3,000 higher tax bill on the $10,000 grant and as a result has put him into a higher tax bracket and is required to pay a higher percentage on his income.

“Nowhere in the grant contract is there a mention of a tax liability to homeowners,” the Shelter Island resident said. “From the get-go we were told there would be no tax burden.”

Coastal Steward of Long Island volunteer Bill Negra checks the health of oysters in Mount Sinai Harbor. Oysters are one way in which Brookhaven Town hopes to clear up nitrogen in coastal waters. File photo by Kyle Barr

The Shelter Island resident was surprised when he received a 1099 form for the system and reached out to county officials for help. When they said they couldn’t help, Sheehan called the comptroller’s office hoping to speak to Kennedy directly. After numerous calls without getting a response, Kennedy finally called him. 

When questioned Kennedy blamed the current administration for mishandling the issue and told Sheehan that he never agreed with the county’s legal counsel decision. 

Kennedy has not responded to requests for comment.

George Hoffman, co-founder of the Setauket Harbor Task Force, said the tax form issue couldn’t have come at a worse time for a program that not only helps homeowners but improves water quality and waterways on Long Island. 

Hoffman said excess nitrogen, from homes with outdated septic systems or cesspools, seeps through the ground causing harmful algae blooms and can negatively affect harbors and marshes that make areas more susceptible to storm surges as well. 

“These people are pioneers, we should be applauding them for doing the right thing,” the task force co-founder said. 

Hoffman added he supports any effort to reduce excess nitrogen in our waterways and said many homes on Long Island have septic system that are in need of replacement. He is also concerned that the comptroller’s decision could stunt the progress the program has already made. 

Bellone has said there are about 360,000 outdated and environmentally harmful septic tanks and leaching systems installed in a majority of homes across the county, and with the issue of being taxed, dozens of applicants have dropped out of the program after learning of Kennedy’s decision to issue forms 1099 to homeowners, according to Scully. 

Officials in the county executive’s office are concerned it could endanger the future of the program and impact funding from the state. In early 2018, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) awarded Suffolk County $10 million from the Statewide Septic Program to expand the county’s denitrifying systems. 

State officials in Albany are aware of the ongoing situation and are similarly concerned, according to Scully. If the IRS were to side with Kennedy, he said they would turn to representatives in Congress for assistance, arguing that those funds shouldn’t be going to Washington but back into taxpayers pockets. 

Pete Lopez, the regional administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, speaks about funds. Photo by Kyle Barr

Local environmental groups are anticipating expanding Long Island Sound education and cleanup initiatives, thanks to both state and federal funds.

As part of the 14th annual National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s Long Island Sound Futures Fund initiative, federal and New York State officials announced Dec. 3 that 36 new grants totaling $2.57 million will go to environmental groups in Connecticut and New York, and $586,000 of those funds will benefit New York organizations.

“The funding is seed money investment for launching additional resources, pulling people together and bringing people together in conversation,” said Pete Lopez, the regional administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

U.S Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) attended the event in the Port Jefferson Village Center and spoke about the grants. Photo by Kyle Barr

Lynn Dwyer, the program director of the fund, said the projects were selected by an unbiased, unaffiliated group of environmental experts. The money is reaching these groups as experts say the marine life in the sound has come under threat. In September the Long Island Clean Water Partnership, an advocacy collective supported by the Rauch Foundation, released its yearly report that showed dangerous amounts of poisonous algae blooms in coastal regions from Port Jefferson Harbor to Huntington Harbor. In addition, more and more areas are expressing hypoxia, or a lack of oxygen in water necessary to support marine life. Experts in the partnership said both of these are due to excess amounts of nitrogen in the water, mostly due to aging septic tanks and cesspools all across Long Island.

Several of the projects center on beach cleanup and environmental stewardship. The North Fork-based nonprofit Group for the East End will be receiving $67,542 to remove invasive plants and develop habitat restoration plans for the Hallock State Park Preserve in Riverhead.

Environmental advocacy group Citizens Campaign for the Environment received $45,000 in grants to conduct a public education campaign to reduce plastic pollution on local beaches in both Nassau and Suffolk counties. Adrienne Esposito, the director of CCE, said the project will gather 500 pledges to reduce throw-away plastic use and engage close to 200 volunteers in coastal cleanups on beaches across the North Shore. The group will be adding an additional $45,000 in matching funds from its own funds for the project.

“We will be distributing reusable metal straws, so people can use those in place of plastic straws,” Esposito said.

In addition to the public education campaign, which will start in January 2019, she said the advocacy group is commissioning a local artist to build a giant metal wire-mesh turtle to be placed in Sunken Meadow State Park. The turtle will be filled with all the plastic debris the volunteers pick-up during their beach cleanup to be viewable by the public. Esposito said she expects the beach cleanup and mesh turtle to be done during summer 2019.

“These birds depend on our Long Island beaches to safely nest, rest, forage and raise their young without the threat of disturbance.” — Sharon Bruce 

The New York chapter of the National Audubon Society is receiving $41,009 from the fund for its continuing Be a Good Egg environmental education program encouraging people to share the waterside with shorebirds. The society will be focusing its efforts on a number of beaches, including at Hallock State Park Preserve, Stony Brook Harbor and along Nissequogue River. Sharon Bruce, the communications manager for Audubon New York, said some of the birds they wish to protect include the piping plover, least tern and American oystercatcher, all of which nest directly on the sand.

“These birds depend on our Long Island beaches to safely nest, rest, forage and raise their young without the threat of disturbance,” Bruce said.

Other projects look to beautify and increase biodiversity in coastal areas. The Long Island Explorium, located in Port Jefferson Village, is receiving $43,626 in grant funds to install native plant rain gardens in high visibility areas such as in front of its building on East Broadway and the corner of East Broadway and Main Street.

“There’s a visual component to it and an educational component,” said Angeline Judex, Long Island Explorium executive director. “It will show to the 800,000 visitors to [Port Jefferson Village] how rain gardens improve the water quality of the harbor.”

Port Jefferson Harbor. File photo by Alex Petroski

Port Jefferson Harbor is currently undergoing an alarming phenomenon that an expert called “uncharted territory” locally.

The harbor is currently experiencing a rust tide, or an algal bloom, caused by a single-celled phytoplankton. Rust tides don’t pose any harm to humans but can be lethal to marine life.

Christopher Gobler, endowed chair of Coastal Ecology and Conservation at the Stony Brook University School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, said rust tides are spurred by hot air, water temperatures and excessive nutrients in the water, especially nitrogen. The Gobler Laboratory at SBU, named for the chairman, is monitoring the situation, performing research into its specific causes, and is looking for solutions to reduce nitrogen loading and thus the intensity of events like these, according to Gobler. He said he has been studying the phenomenon on the East End of Long Island for about 12 years, but this is only the second time it has occurred in Port Jefferson Harbor.

“We never had these blooms even on the East End before 2004,” Gobler said. “Now, they occur pretty much every year since 2004 or so.”

Blooming rust tides typically start in late August and last into mid-September.  However, as water and global temperatures continue to rise, Gobler said there are a lot of unknowns. He said this is one of the hottest summers he has ever witnessed regarding the temperature of the Long Island Sound, adding that temperatures in the local body of water have increased at a rate significantly faster than global averages.

“The big issue is temperature, so these blooms tend to track very well with warmer temperatures,” Gobler said.

George Hoffman, a co-founder of Setauket Harbor Task Force, a nonprofit group which monitors and advocates for the health of the harbor, said his organization saw some early evidence of a rust tide in Little Bay while conducting biweekly water testing Aug. 24. Little Bay is located within Setauket Harbor, and within the larger Port Jefferson Harbor complex. Hoffman said the task force’s readings suggested salinity levels and water temperature were within the parameters needed for the growth of a rust tide.

Rust tide is caused by cochlodinium polykrikoides, according to a fact sheet compiled by the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management. The single-cell phytoplankton may harm fish and shellfish because it produces a hydrogen peroxide-like compound that can damage their gill tissue. Fish can avoid these dangerous blooms by simply swimming away. Fish and shellfish harvested in areas experiencing rust tides are still safe for human consumption.

Gobler said the installation of septic systems capable of removing more nitrogen in homes, especially that fall within watershed areas, would go a long way toward reducing hazardous algal blooms. Suffolk County has taken steps in recent months to increase grant money available to homeowners interested in installing septic systems with up-to-date technology capable of reducing the amount of nitrogen discharged into local waters. In addition, members of the New York State-funded Center for Clean Water Technology at SBU unveiled their nitrogen-reducing biofilter April 26 at a Suffolk County-owned home in Shirley.

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 [email protected] for more information.

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

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.

It’s not hard to find dirty spots in our local waters. Photo by Elana Glowatz

There’s no time to waste.

Actually that’s not true — Suffolk County residents have plenty of time to add our own waste to our water supply, and we do it every day.

That’s why it bothers us that Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone’s proposal to charge a $1 water quality protection fee for every 1,000 gallons of water that homes and businesses use will not be on the ballot for voter approval this November.

He has estimated it would generate roughly $75 million each year toward the environmental cause. Normally, new taxes and fees bother us even more, but these dollars would not be just thrown into the general fund. The plan was to put the money toward expanding sewer systems in Suffolk County — a dire need — and reducing the nitrogen pollution in the water we drink and in which different species live.

Much of Suffolk relies on cesspools and septic systems that can leak nitrogen from our waste into the ground. Nitrogen is in the air and water naturally, but high levels are dangerous. One harmful side effect of nitrogen is increased 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.

According to Bellone’s administration, state lawmakers would not get on board with the idea to put his water surcharge on the ballot so the voters could make the final decision. Officials said more time was needed before the proposal was brought to a vote.

On the county level, Republican lawmakers also stood strongly against the proposal.

Most people use 80-100 gallons of water each day, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, so some people may have had to pay up to an extra $37 a year under the fee proposal. Big whoop — if it could help us stop poisoning ourselves and the rest of the ecosystem, we’ll pay up.

We’re disappointed this measure won’t be on the ballot this year. But it could be an opportunity for Bellone to show some leadership by making sure progress is made before 2017. Instead of worrying about being disliked for adding $37 to residents’ water bills each year, he should just take the tough action and enact the surcharge. We’ve already waited too long to get rid of our cesspools. Let’s not waste any more time and water.