Steve Bellone holds call-in on nitrogen campaign

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More than 9,700 Suffolk residents listened to a telephone town hall hosted by Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone Monday night, as he took his still-evolving campaign to address nitrogen-polluted waters in the county directly to the public.

Bellone announced on Thursday in a news conference at the county building in Hauppauge that addressing the problem of nitrogen in water -- which pollutes bays, contaminates the aquifer and harms tidal wetlands that protect from storms -- would be his administration's top priority.

He made the same promise Monday night, as he spoke to residents and answered a handful of questions from the public for about an hour, with county staff and water officials on hand.

Bellone acknowledged that reversing the trend would be costly, and adding sewers would be part of the solution. But in the coming months, he said he will identify specific areas for new sewers or other improvements and have a cost estimate for the project.

The county executive said the administration will identify potential funding sources and the most environmentally sensitive areas.

"The cost of sewering is extraordinarily expensive," he said. "We have to make sure we're prioritizing, so we get bang for the buck. The last thing we need to do is place unnecessary burdens on homeowners."

But, he said, inaction would be worse for the tourism and fishing industries and harm the quality of groundwater. About 70 percent of homes in the county are on septic systems, which leach nitrogen into the water table -- primarily from urine.

About 43,000 Suffolk residents received an automated call Sunday night informing them about the telephone conference. Another call was made to the same residents shortly before the 7 p.m. conference, and residents could stay on the line to join the call. Any resident could also call into a toll-free number.

The Rauch Foundation, a Long Island-based nonprofit which advocates for issues including the environment, paid for the call, which county spokesman Justin Meyers, said cost about $5,000.

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The Rauch Foundation also has pledged $1.5 million toward a clean water lobbying campaign being launched by environmental groups, said the foundation's David Kapell on Monday night.

When one caller, identified as John from East Islip, asked what the average citizen could do to reduce nitrogen, Kapell said there would be state legislation that needed public support in the future. Advocates in Albany would need "a core group of support from the public."

Bellone said residents should check his Facebook page in the near future for tips on how to lower their nitrogen.

That answer didn't satisfy the next questioner on the line, a woman identified on the phone as Ann, who called the answer, "just a whole bunch of political double talk."

A county staffer later advised residents to use time-release fertilizer on their lawns and have their cesspools and septic systems pumped and maintained.

When one questioner asked about the impact of pesticides and herbicides on groundwater quality, Bellone said farmers have to use best practices. But, he said, "We are a farming county, which is one of the wonderful things about the county."

The moderator had people on the phone call punch in a response to a poll question: "How important is water quality to your family's life?" The moderator said 92 percent of respondents answered that it was "very important."

Bellone said he was gratified at the poll results. "This is just at the start of the campaign," he said. "I'm very heartened."

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