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Suffolk officials unveil $4 billion plan to fight nitrogen pollution in surface waters

Suffolk health officials said 74 percent of the

Suffolk health officials said 74 percent of the county is still unsewered and that 70 percent of the nitrogen in local bays comes from about 360,000 cesspools and septic systems. Credit: Doug Kuntz

Suffolk officials have unveiled a $4 billion, multiphase plan to combat nitrogen pollution in surface waters plagued by algae blooms and fish kills by replacing aging cesspools with high-tech sewage systems that do more to remove nitrates.

The Subwatersheds Wastewater Plan, which would last more than 50 years, calls for the creation of a countywide wastewater management district and a new, but unspecified, revenue stream by 2022 to help finance grants and loans for homeowners and to overhaul the septic systems beginning in 2024.

Once a $50 million to $70 million annual funding stream is in place, the Suffolk health department's plan calls for sanitary code changes to require Innovative Alternative, or IA, systems be installed in new construction. The plan estimates new construction needing about 79,000 units over the next 50 years.

The plan calls for other code changes, including installation of IA systems when septic systems fail or when properties are sold. The systems, which cost about $20,000 apiece, plus maintenance costs, currently are being tested on a voluntary basis by Suffolk homeowners who received grants and loans.

Advocates said the plan, the first since Suffolk’s 208 water study in 1978, will begin to reverse the decline of Suffolk’s surface waters within five to 10 years and is the long-term solution to returning them to a pristine state. But critics said the plan’s focus on nitrogen from homeowners’ septic systems is overblown and misplaced.

“These septic systems are the reason for our water quality crisis. They are the monster in the room,” said Walter Dawydiak, director of the Suffolk Department of Health Services' environmental quality division. While public supply wells have been protected, he said, “We did a very poor job with surfaces waters” because those areas “fall through the regulatory crack” between the state and county.

Health officials said 74 percent of Suffolk is still unsewered and that 70 percent of the nitrogen in local bays comes from about 360,000 cesspools and septic systems. Suffolk's groundwater is part of a sole source aquifer that provides the region’s drinking water and also is the primary source of nitrogen contamination to streams and bays, the plan said.

But John Tanacredi, executive director of Molloy College’s Center for Environmental Research and Coastal Oceans, said the plan overestimates the nitrogen coming from septic tanks, and downplays other contamination sources, such as fertilizer, nitrogen in the air and stormwater that can close beaches. He also said the plan paints an exaggerated negative picture on the state of Long Island waters and relies on computer models for assumptions rather than current data.

“As a homeowner in Suffolk County, I’m appalled,” Tanacredi said of the proposed mandates for homeowners to eventually convert to advanced septic systems. “There are a lot of overstatements by a lot of groups not in the scientific community.”

Suffolk health officials describe the 750-page plan, with another 1,500 pages in backup documents, as a “road map” and “an actionable management plan,” but many of its policy recommendations will have to go before the state and county boards of health and the county legislature for review and adoption. The plan also includes an adaptive management strategy to deal with changing conditions as time passes.

The plan also calls for expansion of sewer districts and code changes that would permit increased sewage flows from 15,000 to 30,000 gallons per day for prepackaged sewage treatment plants that could be used in downtown areas while allowing them to be built on smaller spaces of an acre or less.

Under the plan, “In a five- or 10-year window, you are going to see very significant improvement and payback," Dawydiak said. "This is not going to be a forever problem.”

Advocates insist the plan will reduce nitrogen in wastewater in priority low-lying shore, bay and stream areas by more than 50 percent. After 45 years, the recommendations would achieve load reduction for ideal water quality in 45 percent of the wastewater management areas. It also would reduce nitrogen in priority areas by 70 percent.

Christoph Gobler, chair of Stony Brook University’s Costal Ecology School, called the plan “incredibly strong and sound science,” saying the proposal is larger than any in the country to revive its 191 separate surface water sites. “It’s inspiring to finally see a plan … that will reverse course on decades of negative trajectories,” he said.

Mitchell Pally, Long Island Builder Institute CEO, said he "strongly supports” an effort to reduce nitrogen, like adding new sewer lines where needed, alternate systems where sewers are unworkable and changes in zoning rules to provide new housing options in downtowns.

Dawydiak maintains the plan will help protect Suffolk’s sole source aquifer. “What we found in a nutshell is that the water in the upper glacial aquifer was not getting better, it was getting steadily worse — 40 percent worse from the last time we look[ed] at the issue. The Magothy [the lower aquifer] is 90 percent worse.”

Jeff Szabo, Suffolk Water Authority CEO, said the authority’s water supply is safe and “meets or surpasses some of the toughest regulation in the country.” Only two of the authority’s 600 wells need treatment for nitrogen, and levels have stabilized or gone down as farms have improved how they use fertilizer, authority officials said.

Dawydiak acknowledged nitrogen levels in the public supply dwells are far below drinking 10 milligrams per liter limit for nitrogen — 4mg/l in public supply wells in the upper aquifer and 2mg/l in the lower Magothy. But he added the plan will help because nitrogen levels of .5 mg/l can affect the health of ecosystems from groundwater that feeds the bays.

The plan’s Phase I would run for the next five years and envisions 9,000 upgrades — 5,000 from replacement of existing septic systems and 4,000 from new construction — at a cost of $95 million. The idea is to continue the county's existing voluntary program, which grants up to $10,000 and low-interest loans to help pay for the systems.

Phase II, over the next 30 years, proposes upgrading 207,000 homes in priority low-lying areas along the shores, lakes and rivers with a price tag of $1.9 billion — to include 177,000 retrofits and 30,000 units in new construction costing $65 million to $69 million a year.

Phase III, starting in 2054, would last 15 years and calls for 299,000 upgrades at a cost of $750 million, or $48 million a year, with 384,000 retrofits and 46,000 units of new construction.

A final phase after 2068 of undetermined length would cover the remaining areas, mainly in central Suffolk, with 430,000 upgrades — 384,000 retrofits and 46,000 in new construction, costing $67 million a year, or $1.3 billion.

Despite clashing opinions, health officials are about to launch an aggressive push to win approval of the plan’s draft generic environmental impact statement required under the state Environmental Quality Review Act, rather than the plan itself.

Suffolk’s Council on Environmental Quality in the last two weeks has been informally reviewing both the plan and the draft generic environmental impact statement. The county will begin a 30-day comment period Aug. 14. Health officials plan to hold public hearings on the proposal Aug. 28 and Aug. 30 in eastern and western Suffolk, though they have not identified the locations.

Officials are also looking to the council to make a recommendation on the draft generic environmental impact statement at its Oct. 14 meeting, so that the county legislature can adopt its findings at the last meeting of 2019 on Dec. 17. Without that action, many of the steps may have to be repeated next year after a new county legislature is elected in November.

However, questions still abound. While state and local grants has funded installation of early IA systems, widespread support for a new funding stream is uncertain.

While labeling nitrogen “public water enemy number one,” County Executive Steve Bellone, facing reelection this fall, has distanced himself from the financing issue. Bellone proposed state legislation in 2016 for a countywide water referendum to raise $75 million a year to combat the problem. At the time, an aide to then-state Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan labeled the proposal “DOA” — dead on arrival — and the proposal died.

“The fight to reverse decades of nitrogen pollution from outdated cesspools and septic systems has created a unity … among scientists, business leaders, environmentalists and organized labor,” Bellone said. But, he added, “No plan to reverse nitrogen pollution will be successful unless policymakers find a way to make it easier and affordable for homeowners.”

Since then, environmental groups have taken the lead on how to pay for the program. Earlier this year, the groups proposed legislation for a referendum on the November ballot to raise $70 million a year through property taxes or surcharge on water bills. However, Albany lawmakers took no action.

The reliability of new IA systems is also unsettled. While touting a half-dozen new IA systems in use as a “good news story,” health officials have so far given them only provisional approval, and three so far are not meeting standards. Dawydiak added one is potentially facing removal.

However, health officials said the overall average for all IA systems is 18.4 milligrams per liter, which is below the 19 milligram per liter required to obtain permanent approval. Dawydiak acknowledges samples can yield “highly variable” results. “None of this stuff is rock solid right now, ” he said, adding “it will be another year or two” before the systems’ reliability can be fully determined.

Royal Reynolds, a former county engineer and now a consultant, said the county hasn’t proven that sewers or advanced systems have improved water quality in areas where they have been installed. “It’s frustrating to see the county move ahead with their policies,” said Reynolds, warning that the focus on nitrogen would allow more development and lead to a depleted aquifer.

Legis. Kevin McCaffrey (R-Lindenhurst) said he is concerned about the cost of new systems and the possibility of new taxes when residents of the Southwest Sewer District already have been paying sewer taxes for years.

“I’m all for protecting our waters against nitrogen pollution,” he said, “but we’re trying to make Suffolk County more affordable and we have to make sure we're not signing on to something we can’t afford to pay for.”
Bellone said the “fight to reverser decades of nitrogen pollution” has created wide backing from scientists, business, environmentalists and labor. But he conceded, “No plan … will be successful unless policy makers find a way to make it easier and affordable for homeowners.”


Work on the plan started in September 2016 and included staff from regulatory agencies, scientists, academic institutions and national experts. Funding for the plan was provided by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation under the Long Island Nitrogen Action Plan and from the New York State Department of State under the South Shore Estuary Program.

Phase I: (2019-23) estimates 9,000 upgrades: 5,000 septic system replacements, 4,000 new construction. It continues voluntary program of grants, up to $10,000, and low-interest loans. Cost: $95 million. Recommends setting up countywide wastewater management district and legislation for recurring revenue source.

Phase II: (2024-53) estimates 207,000 upgrades: 177,000 retrofit, 30,000 new construction, addressing highest priority near shore and other targeted areas . Annual cost: $65 million to $69 million. Total cost: $1.9 billion.

Phase III: (2054-68) estimates 299,000 upgrades: 253,000 retrofit, 46,000 new construction, taking aim at other high-priority sites. Annual cost: $48 million. Total cost: $730 million.

Phase IV: (2068-TBD) estimates 430,000 upgrades: 384,000 retrofits, 46,000 new construction. Upgrades all remaining areas, primarily central Suffolk. Annual cost: $67 million. Total cost: $1.3 billion.

SOURCE: Suffolk County Department of Health Services

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