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Report: Suffolk's cesspools imperiling waterways

About 120 acres of Peconic Bay's underwater land

About 120 acres of Peconic Bay's underwater land is under lease. (June 1, 2009) Photo Credit: James Carbone

Suffolk County cesspools are imperiling the region's waterways, releasing high levels of nitrogen that moves into rivers and bays, causing algae blooms, fish kills and the explosive growth of invasive weeds, according to a report released Monday by Peconic Baykeeper.

The Quogue-based environmental group is calling for the county to overhaul its septic code to require periodic cesspool inspections, designate nitrogen-sensitive areas and create incentives for homeowners to replace antiquated systems.

Carrie Gallagher, Suffolk's commissioner of environment and energy, said the county this fall will release a water resources management report that is expected to recommend changes to the county's sanitation code, including limiting septic system installation to properties of 1 acre or larger. The code currently allows systems to be installed in some cases on half-acre lots.

"We all agree that nitrogen pollution is a problem and, yes, our current regulations and septic systems could be doing a better job at pollution reduction," Gallagher said.

Kevin McAllister, who heads the Peconic Baykeeper group, said revamping the county's cesspool policy is "politically sensitive, it's costly, but let's start talking about it. . . . With regard to development in Suffolk County, we have reached that tipping point. It's going to be the demise of our waters if we don't address it."

Four Long Island bays plagued by recurrent blooms of harmful brown tide algae were added to a state list of "impaired" waters in January; the draft list is expected to become final in July. The pollutant identified for the four bays - Great South, Moriches, Quantuck and Shinnecock - is nitrogen, caused by cesspools and storm water runoff tainted with fertilizer, according to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.

DEC officials say more study is needed on the role cesspools and other sources of pollution play in causing algal blooms in the four bays before the state decides on the best approach to prevent future brown tides.

But the Baykeeper, along with local officials and the Long Island Liquid Waste Association, say Suffolk County's cesspool code lags behind codes in other counties and states. They say these codes are meant to protect drinking water but neglect the effects trace nitrogen levels can have on surface water.

Ed Warner Jr., a bayman and Southampton trustee, pointed to a Flanders homeowner cited by the county this month for a cesspool that has become exposed because of beach erosion on Flanders Bay.

"The tide comes up to the cesspool and the effluent is washing into the bay," he said. "We need to address these problems before they get to this point. It's time to get some more modern septic practices on Long Island."

So far, the Baykeeper's report has earned the endorsement of Suffolk Legis. Edward Romaine (R-Center Moriches) and the tentative support of Legis. John M. Kennedy (R-Nesconset), who said he favors stricter cesspool regulations, but worries about costs to homeowners. A typical septic system on Long Island costs between $3,000 and $4,000. Rhode Island, for example, has embraced high-tech septic systems that cost between $18,000 and $25,000.

Romaine said: "One of the things we need to look at is the best technologies available to reduce nitrogen escaping from septic systems."

Typical Long Island septic systems release nitrogen at a concentration of 40 mg per liter, according to the report. New alternative septic systems reduce nitrogen levels to 10 to 14 mg per liter, the report said. Sewage treatment plants reduce nitrogen levels to 3 mg per liter.


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