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Long IslandColumnistsRick Brand

Spending millions still won’t easily solve Suffolk’s nitrogen woes

Suffolk County Legis. Sarah Anker high-fives Suffolk County

Suffolk County Legis. Sarah Anker high-fives Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone during a news conference at which Bellone announced the Reclaim Our Water Septic Improvement Program in Blue Point on April 10, 2017. Photo Credit: Barry Sloan

With all the flourish he could muster, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone last week signed into law an $8 million grant program that along with low-interest loans will largely pay for high-tech septic systems to combat nitrogen pollution in local waters.

“With a stroke of the pen, we have moved a step closer to reversing decades of nitrogen pollution by providing homeowners the tools . . . to reclaim our waters,” said Bellone, who was surrounded by county lawmakers, planners and health officials,

But the road to resolving Suffolk’s water woes will be neither simple nor quick.

The new systems can cost as much as $18,000, and the $2 million in annual county funding through 2021 will be enough to upgrade only 800 homes over that span, county officials conceded.

With 360,000 suburban homes with cesspools that do nothing to reduce nitrogen pollution, that initial funding will address less than 1 percent of the problem.

But Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s $2.5 billion state infrastructure bond issue includes $75 million for sewer improvements. And the county hopes to get all or a large share of the money because state funding rules mandate that programs must be ready to go, Deputy County Executive Peter Scully said.

Suffolk health officials say they expect to be ready to start taking applications for the septic system grants by July 1.

While Scully says that $75 million will upgrade 5,000 to 6,000 Suffolk homes, both efforts combined would fix less than 2 percent of homes with cesspools. East Hampton and Southampton towns also are eyeing funding for the high tech septic systems using 20 percent of their community preservation funds, financed by the property transfer tax.

“These are all baby steps,” said Assemb. Fred Thiele (I-Sag Harbor). “But it’s like turning around a battleship. It will need a 10-year commitment and an ongoing source of revenue.”

While Thiele has filed a bill to permit a Suffolk referendum to create a still unspecified funding source for more hookups, he and Bellone see little chance for state action this year. But Thiele said he hopes initial funding for grants and loans will demonstrate public interest to connect to the costly new systems. Bellone’s initial proposal for a water fee went nowhere last year.

“Right now, the State Senate is lukewarm at best,” said Thiele. “But if they see 3,000 homeowners apply, it may help to create a funding source.”

Yet the ambitious grant program is fraught with potential peril that could sway public sentiment.

Just getting staff hired and ready to process applications, installations and monitor new systems will be daunting. The durability of new high tech units, which have electric and mechanical components, have been tested for only the past year and could come into question over time. The new systems also require maintenance that can cost $600 a year and could face difficulties if electricity goes out in a storm.

Timing also could become an issue.

The environmental review isn’t finished, nor are health regulations to govern the overall program. Yet documents connected to the review suggest that new systems should accompany all new home construction starting Jan. 1. Builders oppose the idea, saying the county should concentrate first on the most vulnerable areas. Bellone aides say the issue is unsettled.

Some remain unconvinced about the merit of the initiative.

“There’s no doubt . . . nitrogen is a problems in some surface waters, but these complicated, expensive systems are not the answer,” said Peter Akras, an opponent who spoke at the legislative hearing on the grant program.

However, Legis. Bridget Fleming (D-Sag Harbor) said the initiative would “jump start the desperately needed replacement of outdated systems and reverse the impairment of our waters.”

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