Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, shown September 21, 2015.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, shown September 21, 2015. Credit: James Escher

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone Thursday signed landmark legislation to ban the installation of new cesspools, require permits for new septic systems and track failures of aging wastewater systems countywide.

Bellone signed the measure surrounded by county lawmakers and environmental, civic and business leaders near the shore of Lake Ronkonkoma, once a bustling resort area, which now suffers from pollution problems.

“We’re making a gigantic leap forward today,” said Bellone. “This marks a historic step in our fight to reclaim our water. This fight belongs to all of us . . . If we do not reverse the decades of decline, we will be not have a prosperous future.”

The new law closes a loophole in a 1973 law that banned cesspools in new construction and instead required septic systems. However, the measure never required homeowners to add a septic tank when they replaced existing cesspools that failed.

The new law will require the industry to begin tracking failures of septic and cesspool systems starting July 1, 2018, and require residents to obtain permits when installing new septic systems. Adding a septic tank, officials say, will add $2,000 to $2,500 for each home in a county in which there are 360,000 unsewered homes. Of that total, 252,000 use only cesspools.

However, Legis. Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga) said the new measure ”does nothing” to protect the groundwater. “This is all about requiring a permit for which the public will have to pay. It’s all about the money,” he said.

While county officials originally estimated there would be a $70 permit fee, Deputy County Executive Peter Scully said that after lawmakers raised concerns, the state Department of Environmental Conservation has agreed to provide $360,000 in grants to avoid imposing a permit fee for the first 18 months.

Bellone maintained that closing the loophole will “set the stage for the evolution away from non-performing cesspools and septic systems and ultimately to use state of the art technology that will . . . reverse the decline in water quality” by as much as 70 percent.

However, new high-tech systems that reduce nitrogen from wastewater cost about $17,000, more than twice that of septic systems. The county has implemented a grant and loan program, for which 228 so far have applied for aid and 160 have been approved. The county has also applied for the state’s $75 million in additional grants and loans, but officials concede the funding will only cover a fraction of the 5,000 to 9,000 systems that officials expect could fail annually.

Several lawmakers and activists acknowledge the regulatory measure is just the first of many needed to make the initiative work. “This is the first regulatory step,” said Legis. Bridget Fleming (D-Sag Harbor). “We are going to continue to keep our shoulders to the wheel until every lake, every bay, every harbor and every creek in Suffolk County is pristine and teeming with life which makes our economy and our way of life thrive.”

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