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Legislation would cut costs of new advanced septic systems

Albany bill is part of effort to improve water quality while giving customers an incentive to upgrade their systems, says Sag Harbor assemblyman.

Assemb. Fred Thiele (I-Sag Harbor) is seen in

Assemb. Fred Thiele (I-Sag Harbor) is seen in January 2017. Photo Credit: Gordon M. Grant

Proposed state legislation would cut $2,500 to $3,000 off the cost of new advanced septic systems by eliminating a requirement that professional engineers or architects design where in the ground the systems are installed.

The septic systems, which cost on average $20,000 to install, reduce nitrogen from household waste. They are a key part of an effort to improve surface waters’ quality, said Assemb. Fred Thiele (I-Sag Harbor), who introduced the legislation along with state Sen. Sen. Kenneth LaValle (R-Port Jefferson).

But “it’s not cheap,” Thiele said.

Another pair of bills, also introduced by Thiele and LaValle, would allow homeowners to pay back loans to municipalities for the nitrogen-reducing systems on their property tax bills, and allow the five East End towns to loan money from special tax funds.

“We’re looking for ways to make septic system upgrades more affordable, and give an incentive for people to participate in septic system upgrades,” Thiele said in an interview Wednesday.

A Newsday/News 12 review last month found that as Suffolk County tests the systems for nitrogen, the effort has faced technical and political hurdles, including lawmakers reluctant to impose additional costs on homeowners.

Advanced systems are roughly three times more expensive than conventional septic tanks.

Professional engineers and architects who currently design the systems said they opposed the proposal.

The advanced systems “are more intricate than the conventional septic systems that have previously been the standard. These systems are essentially miniature sewage treatment plants and include mechanical and electrical devices that require appropriate sizing and design,” Matthew P. Scheiner, a professional engineer with R & M Engineering in Huntington, said in an email on Tuesday.

Kevin McDonald, conservation project director for public lands at The Nature Conservancy on Long Island, compared the current requirement to getting an engineer to certify a refrigerator installation.

He said surveyors could decide where the systems get installed, as they do with traditional septic tanks. Engineers could still handle more complicated locations.

“Simple sites should be done by people who are capable and are already doing those type of sites for septic systems and cesspools,” McDonald said. “But this isn’t rocket science.”

With 360,000 Suffolk homes using either cesspools or septic tanks, he said there aren’t enough professional engineers to handle the workload. As it is, some professional engineers have monthslong waiting lists to get to installations.

Walter Dawydiak, director of Suffolk’s Division of Environmental Quality, said states are split about whether to require professional engineers or architects.

Maryland, which has the largest rebate program, does not require them. Dawydiak said the county would create its own certification program for installers, and it would only apply to preapproved technologies that are premanufactured for residential use.

Thiele said the five weeks remaining on the state legislative calendar are a “short window. It will take some heavy lifting, but I am optimistic we can get some action.”

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