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Suffolk County Water Authority

The Suffolk County Water Authority is urging customers to turn off their taps.

SCWA has asked residents to take measures to reduce their water use after it hit an all-time high water pumping figure amid a heat wave in the area. This month, a water pumping figure of 545,726 gallons-per-minute across the authority’s service territory broke a previous record of 542,610 gallons-per-minute set in July of 2016. 

SCWA, which services approximately 1.2 million Suffolk County residents, has sent emails and recorded phone messages to customers in recent weeks in an effort to make sure there is sufficient water supply for emergencies. The authority says customers should adjust their irrigation controllers to water no more than every other day and avoid setting controllers to operate between peak pumping hours of 3 a.m. to 7 a.m.

During the summer months, water usage increases as customers refill pools, water lawns and gardens. 

“We need cooperation from our customers to make sure that firefighters have sufficient water pressure to battle fires and that hospitals have sufficient water pressure to take care of patients,” said SCWA Chief Executive Officer Jeffrey Szabo. “We need people to get this message loud and clear — change your watering habits today and help to ensure there is a sufficient water supply for everyone.”

The Long Island Water Conference, which is made up of water providers, has recommended that residents shorten irrigation system watering time by five minutes, check their irrigation system for leaks and consider replacing a standard irrigation with a smart irrigation controller.

For more ideas about how to conserve water, customers are urged to go to ourwaterourlives.com. 

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Governor Andrew Cuomo (D) signed legislation into law Dec. 9 banning the chemical 1,4-dioxane, which is found in cleaning products, personal care products and cosmetics.  

The Environmental Protection Agency considers 1,4-dioxane a likely carcinogen. Yet the dangerous chemical can be found in numerous household products that families use every day. Recent testing done at an independent lab found 1,4-dixoane in over 80 percent of cleaning and personal care products tested, including shampoos, body washes, baby products and detergents. Once used by consumers and washed down the drain, 1,4-dioxane enters local water systems. Elevated levels of 1,4-dioxane have been found across the state, with EPA data showing that Long Island has the highest levels detected in the country.

The Suffolk County and Suffolk County Water Authority have been conducting tests to monitor the situation, and purchased equipment in some cases to remove the chemical. The county continues to characterize the chemical as a major emerging concern to Long Island’s drinking water.

“By signing this bill into law, Gov. Cuomo has taken the bold step of saying that we are no longer going to simply chase after 1,4-dioxane after it gets into the environment, we are going to take strong steps to prevent it from getting into the environment in the first place,” said Peter Scully, deputy county executive and water quality czar. “Once again, the governor has made New York a national leader in the battle to ensure a cleaner environment for future generations.”

 Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment (CCE), has been a strong proponent of the ban and has provided a consumer guide listing products to avoid on the CCE website. 

“In the battle of public need over corporate greed, the public just won,” she said. “Washing our laundry, bathing children and washing dishes should not result in cancer causing chemicals in our drinking water.”

This legislation, she added, is precedent setting and sends a clear message to industries that the public’s need for clean water trumps corporate interests.  

“This was a hard fought battle, with Dow Chemical, American Chemistry Council, Lysol, Proctor and Gamble and others all working against the bill,” she said. “Public support for this legislation was abundant and widespread, with 40,000 signatures on petitions sent to the governor, 10,000 letters from across the state and thousands of phone calls made in the last two weeks asking the governor to sign the bill.” 

Removing 1,4-dixoane from consumer products that are washed down the drain will be essential to meet this new drinking water standard.

“In the absence of federal leadership, and to protect our communities, New York State is currently poised to adopt the nation’s most protective maximum contaminant levels (MCLs) for PFOA, PFOS, and 1,4-dioxane,” said State Department of Health spokesperson Erin Silk. “New York State agencies are also undertaking what is arguably the nation’s most comprehensive investigation of potential sources of contamination by these chemicals. The public comment period for the regulatory process has closed and the department has concluded its review of nearly 5,000 comments for discussion at the next Drinking Water Quality Council meeting.”

New York State Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Rockville Center) and Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) sponsored the bills (S4389B/A6295A) in the Legislature. Senator Jim Gaughran (D-Northport) and Sen. Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) are co-sponsors. 

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.

A map showing where the SCWA expects to put the treatment systems, should they be approved. Images from SCWA

In an effort to eliminate 1,4-dioxane in county drinking water, Suffolk County Water Authority has proposed installing additional treatment systems at sites throughout the county, though costs could be high if plans see the light of day.  

An image of the proposed treatment system. Image from SCWA

In a presentation to Suffolk County legislators, SWCA proposed installing 31 new advanced treatment systems at a number of sites where the levels of 1,4-dioxane are higher than the New York State proposed limit, which is 1 part per billion.

Jeffrey Szabo, SCWA chief executive officer, said the authority is continuing to develop technology that will eliminate toxic chemicals such as 1,4-dioxane. 

“We have been working with the health department on our AOP (advanced oxidation process) systems and the results have been successful,” Szabo said. 

A concern of 1,4-dioxane is that it can’t be removed through conventional treatment methods and involves a complex process of mixing the contaminated water with hydrogen peroxide, treated with ultraviolet light, which then gets sent to tanks filled with carbon where the rest of contaminants are filtered out. The hamlet of Central Islip currently has the sole advanced oxidation process system capable of removing 1,4-dioxane on Long Island. 

The authority says that its systems can destroy 1,4-dioxane molecules to virtually undetectable levels. Szabo said there are close to 100 wells in Suffolk County that need to be treated for the toxin. 

The proposed plan could take five to six years to install all 31 treatment systems, according to the authority’s chief executive officer and it would cost between $1.5 and $6 million in capital costs alone for each system. 

“We are trying to get this done as quickly as possible, there are things still up in the air,” Szabo said. 

The authority is waiting on the state Department of Health to adopt an official maximum contaminant level (MCL) standard. According to officials, they expect to get confirmation sometime in early 2020. 

Szabo stressed that the authority and other water providers will need time to adjust to the new standards as well as to implement the new systems. 

“This will take time, each system has to get approved by the department of health before it can be installed,” Szabo said. 

In the case of the AOP pilot system in Central Islip, officials said it took over two years to get approval from the Department of Health. 

“We want to reassure the public that we are doing everything we can,” Szabo said. 

1,4-Dioxane has been designated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a likely carcinogen associated with liver and kidney damage after a lifetime of exposure to contaminated drinking water. The chemical has been found in industrial solvents, detergents, shampoos and other products. 

In July, the state health department began the process of adopting the MCL of 1 part per billion. The department would become the first in the country to set a limit on 1,4-dioxane. Similarly, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) has planned to offer $350 million in grants for treatment. 

At a forum in February, the Long Island Water Conference estimated the cost of treatment systems for close to 200 water wells contaminated by 1,4-dioxane to be at $840 million. 

The authority said it is hopeful it can begin to implement the plan sometime in 2020. In addition, two additional AOP systems are currently in development for pump stations in East Farmingdale and Huntington.

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It happens somewhere between midnight and 6 in the morning during most summer days. During those witching hours, when most people are resting before the challenges of the day ahead, automatic systems silently climb in synchronization from below ground and propel a precious resource. When the system is done, it silently submerges below ground.

These irrigation systems spread water on lawns all over Long Island and, indeed, the United States.

This year, the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation sent out a letter to the water departments throughout Nassau and Suffolk counties, asking them to reduce water usage by 15 percent within the next three to four years.

The 15 percent reduction is “an ambitious goal,” acknowledged Ty Fuller, director of strategic initiatives and lead hydrogeologist at the Suffolk County Water Authority, which is “attainable” but “it will not be easy.”

For consumers, reducing water usage offers several benefits. For starters, less water used means a lower water bill. Beyond that, however, lower water use conserves a valuable resource. Cutting back on water use also keeps water sources like SCWA and others from needing to drill more wells, upgrade pumps or develop more water systems to meet the increasing summertime demands of Long Islanders eager for lush, green lawns.

As Fuller pointed out, lowering water demand during those peak hours can also ensure that the water system can maintain a fire flow protection.

“That’s always a top priority,” Fuller said. “We want to make sure we can always meet” that demand. It is particularly important in the midst of a drought and as the threat of wildfires increases.

Yet changing consumer behavior on any level is challenging. After all, some of those who need to alter their watering habits are the same people who make New Year’s resolutions that barely last a week.

Fuller said SCWA has identified its top water users during the summer and is reaching out to them to advise on different conservation practices.

The authority is also holding regular water talks and has created a Water Wise Club, where some 382,000 account customers can qualify for credits if they purchase water savings devices. These items include low-flow shower heads and rain sensors, which turn off sprinkler systems after rainstorms when the lawns already have sufficient moisture. The rain sensor provides up to a $50 account credit.

SCWA is encouraging customers to adopt an odd/even system. If their street address is an odd number they water their lawns on odd days, while the even numbers only water lawns on even days.

SCWA rolled out the Water Wise CheckUp scheme with Brinkmann Hardware in Blue Point. Through a consultation with homeowners, an expert identifies each point of water use and provides a road map for savings. Customers requesting a checkup can call 631-292-6101. Customers can also receive information and print out a form at the website www.scwa.com/mobile/water_wise_checkup.

Consumers who become more informed about best practices for watering their lawns can help make this conservation initiative a reality.

“People have been led to believe that irrigating every day is a good thing,” Fuller said. “That can encourage fungal growth. If people see brown blades on their grass, they assume that’s not irrigated properly,” but that can be fungal growth. Adding more water to the lawn can exacerbate the problem.

Cutting back on water usage is a “win-win situation” for the customer and for the water system, Fuller said. “Why would people not want to play a role?”

A restaurant is proposed for the old Suffolk County Water Authority building, above. The owner of Schafer's restaurant says the development will block the view from his building's deck, which can be seen in the background. Photo by Elana Glowatz

A proposal to build a restaurant at the old Suffolk County Water Authority building on West Broadway has one neighboring businessman crying foul, saying the establishment would block his customers’ view of the harbor.

At a Port Jefferson Planning Board meeting on April 16, representatives for property owner The Crest Group LLC and President Enrico Scarda shared plans for the roughly 1/4-acre lot on the north side of the street, right off of the harbor. According to Port Jefferson Station-based engineer Allen Bernhard, the restaurant would include a second-floor outdoor deck with a footprint almost the size of the building itself — just shy of 2,000 square feet. The deck would start on the side of the building and wrap around to the north side, facing the harbor.

At the public hearing, Bernhard said the existing building at the site, which would stay, would block most of the deck when viewed from the south “so it’s not interrupting views.”

Even with planning board approval, the restaurant would still need a permit for outdoor dining from the village board of trustees.

The deck was the main point of contention during the meeting. Attorney Zachary Beriloff, of Ronkonkoma-based Gruenberg Kelly Della, who is representing Schafer’s owner Tom Schafer, said the dining area would actually block the outdoor “observation deck” at Schafer’s restaurant, on the other side of West Broadway.

“It obstructs the view of the water from across the street,” Beriloff said.

But attorney Linda Margolin, of Islandia-based Bracken Margolin Besunder LLP, countered that the issue was a matter between private landowners, not something regulated by the law.

“The issue for this board is not whether the view from Mr. Schafer’s observation deck is important to him,” she said. “I’m sure it is. The question is whether the view from Mr. Schafer’s observation deck is a view of particular importance to the public. … That’s not a public view of significance.”

Beriloff also took issue with three variances the zoning board granted for the project, on the restaurant’s size, parking area and distance from other restaurants. He said Schafer was not properly notified of the proposal and asked the planning board to hold off on any decisions until the matter is resolved.

The board adjourned the hearing, which will resume on May 14.

Aside from the addition of the deck, the proposal does not call for many changes to the outward appearance of the site. Bernhard said the owner would keep much of the original architecture but add large windows on the north side of the building. He also said the owner would plant some trees where possible.

The proposed restaurant could be in limbo for a little while, however, because of a parking issue at the site.
The old water authority building sits at the edge of the Brookhaven Town marina parking lot, with some of the town parking spaces immediately to the north and west of the site and the lot’s entrance to the east. Brookhaven Town has plans to cede control to Port Jefferson Village of those roughly 30 nearby parking spaces in a deal the two municipalities arranged to make up for a deficit of spaces at a mixed-use project up the road, at the historic First National Bank of Port Jefferson. The town owns the bank building and the building next door on East Main Street that used to house the tax receiver’s office and is selling the property to a developer who will put in retail space and apartments. But as the details on that project are not finalized, the marina parking spaces at the harbor are not yet officially in the hands of the village.

There are no other parking spots near the water authority building, possibly linking the fate of the restaurant proposal with that of the parking space deal between the town and the village.