Civic leaders and environmentalists have expressed support for a plan by Brookhaven Town officials to require upgraded septic systems that could help protect environmentally fragile waterways such as the Carmans River and Lake Ronkonkoma.
A handful of speakers at a public hearing on Thursday praised a proposed town law that would establish “nitrogen protection zones” in areas within 500 feet of waterways. New houses in those zones would be required to install upgraded systems or connect to sewage treatment systems.
Supporters of the plan say it could reverse decades of pollution from nitrogen caused by untreated sewage.
“This bill takes Brookhaven from the dark ages to the forefront of environmental protection,” said Suffolk County Planning Commission member Michael Kaufman, a real estate attorney and member of the Setauket Harbor Task Force.
“Our harbors and bays are struggling,” said George Hoffman, also a member of the Setauket Harbor Task Force, a citizens group formed in 2014. He said the town law “would be an important step” toward cleaning up the estuaries.
The town board did not vote on the plan Thursday. Supervisor Edward P. Romaine said written comments about the bill will be accepted for 30 days before the board votes.
Many homes along the Carmans and Forge rivers in Brookhaven have only cesspools that collect sewage. High rates of nitrogen also have been blamed for stagnant waters in Lake Ronkonkoma, Setauket Harbor and Great South Bay.
Town officials have said the proposed law sets sewage treatment standards that are stronger than those required by Suffolk County and thus require improved septic systems.
“The bar is too low,” Kevin McAllister, president of Defend H20, a Sag Harbor-based environmental group, said of the county standard.
County officials could not be reached for comment on Friday.
MaryAnn Johnston, president of the Affiliated Brookhaven Civic Organization, praised Brookhaven officials for seeking to pass a tougher law.
“We need to be aggressive here,” said Johnston, a frequent critic of town officials. “We need to say, ‘This is what we know works.’ ”
Romaine said the town’s proposed septic standard would offer better protection for waterways.
“We have degraded our waters so long, it’s time we do something about it,” Romaine said.
Some town board members, however, expressed concern that installing new septic systems may be too expensive for some homeowners. No costs were discussed at the meeting.
Councilman Kevin LaValle asked town lawyers whether an “act of God” provision could be added to the law to waive septic requirements for homes being renovated after natural disasters. LaValle said he wanted “to make sure we’re not adding an added burden at the worst time of their lives.”
Senior assistant town attorney Leigh Rate said exceptions would defeat the purpose of the law. She said flooding caused by storms often washes untreated sewage into waterways.
Rate and Anthony Graves, the town’s chief environmental analyst, said homeowners whose houses were damaged by storms may be eligible for funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to pay for upgraded sewage treatment systems.