Suffolk County wants to launch a pilot program this year to replace approximately 550 aging septic systems or cesspools in coastal areas, along rivers and in areas with high water tables.

The county this month plans to apply to the Regional Economic Development Council for $6 million to start a grant/loan program where residents, business owners and municipalities can apply for up to $7,500 to replace their old septic systems with a new type approved by the county.

Suffolk will also pitch in $2 million from its stabilization reserve fund. If approved, the program will begin in 2017, with an estimated completion date of 2020.

“You can’t expect homeowners to bear the cost for these systems alone for what is primarily a regional benefit,” County Executive Steve Bellone said.

About 200,000 of the 360,000 homes on cesspools or septic systems in Suffolk are in areas with high water tables, near coastlines or other watersheds.

“We’re going to place priority on the homes, the businesses, the local municipalities that fall within that area,” Bellone said.

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A recent study by the United States Geological Survey of coastal areas inundated during superstorm Sandy found that cesspools and septic systems in dense areas leach more nutrients, pharmaceuticals and other contaminants into the environment than those in less populated areas.

Once in the groundwater, these byproducts of human activity quickly move into surface waters degrading marshes, rivers and water bodies.

That increase in nitrogen, personal care byproducts and pharmaceuticals can trigger algal blooms, disrupt natural chemical processes and harm water quality, according to a study published in the June 30 edition of the peer-reviewed journal Marine Pollution Bulletin.

“Our study found that the areas that serve a higher population tend to have a greater influence,” said Irene Fisher, principal author of the study and a hydrologist at the USGS Water Science Center in Coram. “These areas were in the flood zone. They will be inundated again.”

She said the findings could help inform Suffolk County, where 75 percent of all homes rely on cesspools or septic systems, many of which are crude structures beneath the surface.

“For resiliency efforts to try to protect groundwater, the spots that serve the greatest amount of people I would focus on first,” Fisher said.

Suffolk County has been trying to tackle nitrogen problems since a comprehensive water resources management plan was released in early 2015, showing that concentrations of the nutrient increased 80 percent between 1987 and 2013 in the Magothy Aquifer, which supplies much of Long Island’s drinking water.

This year, the county proposed imposing a water usage fee to fund a countywide district program that would attempt to reduce nitrogen pollution from homes not connected to sewer lines. That attempt was dropped in June.

Alternative systems

After Sandy, the county was awarded $383 million for sewer expansion. Projects or plans are underway to extend sewer service in several areas, including in Mastic along the Forge River, parts of Babylon near the Carlls River and in Patchogue near the river of the same name. But sewers are not a universal solution and the county has been evaluating other options.

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Suffolk also launched a program to test alternative septic systems and installed 19 around the county. They feature different technologies, but preliminary data show each can reduce nitrogen releases by 50 percent, and in some cases by up to 70 percent. A second round of systems will be installed this year, said Deputy County Executive Peter Scully, who is overseeing the county’s wastewater efforts. A list of approved systems should be available this year.

“We’re setting the table for evolution away from these systems that are problematic,” Scully said. “We recognize degraded water quality is a result of human activity and we’re going to have to change how we manage our wastewater.”

The Empire State Development oversees the regional development councils and a decision on Suffolk’s pilot-program application will not be announced until the fall, spokesman Jonah Bruno said.

“We cannot discuss pending applications during an active competition,” he said.

A septic tank is installed in Nesconset as part of a Suffolk County pilot program to improve water quality and reduce nitrogen pollution. The work was being done on Aug. 20, 2015. Photo Credit: James Carbone

Suffolk County communications director Scott Martella said the request aligns with a development council funding goal to repair and upgrade aging infrastructure.

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Using pollution data

Using scientific data, such as the USGS study, is one way Suffolk is working to reverse decades of nitrogen pollution, officials said.

That study looked at low density residential and mixed-use medium density residential settings in New Jersey and New York, from western Fire Island east to Shinnecock.

On Fire Island, USGS had data from three locations before Sandy, allowing a comparison pre- and post-storm. Nitrogen there consisted mainly of ammonium and levels stayed the same at one location, went down at another and increased at a third. At the site of increased nitrogen levels, the pharmaceutical concentrations also increased by 87 percent in results taken after Sandy.

In other locations off Fire Island that were sampled, the data can be used as a baseline to measure the effect of future storm events, Fisher said. That data showed that concentrations of compounds associated with wastewater were higher downgradient of mixed-use properties rather than those with a handful of homes.

Also, places with restaurants or small hotels contributed a variety of contaminants because of their transient uses, meaning people with a variety of health and medical issues passed through.

The anesthetic lidocaine, which can be used in sunburn relief products, was the most prevalent and was found in 35 percent of all New York samples. The antihistamine fexofenadine was found in 30 percent of samples and the opioid tramadol in 25 percent of samples.

“These data can be used to improve our understanding of the fate and transport of [contaminants of emerging concern] and their co-occurrence with nitrogen in shallow groundwater, which is necessary for defining and predicting the resiliency of [on-site wastewater disposal systems] in coastal settings,” the study said.