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Suffolk passes bill updating how home wastewater is handled

Lawmakers approve measure that represents effort to modernize waste removal for the county’s 360,000 unsewered homes.

Suffolk County Deputy Executive Peter Scully at a

Suffolk County Deputy Executive Peter Scully at a meeting of the county legislature on Tuesday night, Dec. 5, 2017. Scully said he expects more bills designed to update how home wastewater is handled. Photo Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Suffolk lawmakers took the first steps Tuesday toward updating how the county handles wastewater from unsewered homes when they approved a bill requiring permits for new septic systems and mandating the installation of septic tanks by those looking to replace cesspools.

After almost three hours of debate at the county Legislative Building in Riverhead and two last-minute emergency versions, the amendments to Suffolk’s sanitary code passed 12-5 with all Democrats and Republican Legis. Thomas Barraga (R-West Islip) voting in favor of it.

County Executive Steve Bellone is expected to sign the bill into law.

Other Republicans argued the bill should go back to committee next week because of the last-minute changes, expressed concern about the fee the county would charge for a permit, and said the law didn’t do enough to improve water quality.

Requiring a septic tank when a cesspool fails will cost an estimated additional $2,000 to $2,500 for a homeowner, county officials said.

There are an estimated 360,000 unsewered homes in Suffolk County with about 252,000 using cesspools, officials said

Legislators backed off a provision in the original bill that would have forced homeowners to replace failed cesspools based on the number of pump-outs after lawmakers worried about the cost to homeowners. Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory (D-Copiague) had balked at imposing the mandate on residents.

Deputy County Executive Peter Scully said the changes approved Tuesday had “broad support” from the environmental community, a home builders lobbying group, town officials, and a working group of lawmakers.

“We considered these to be the easy steps, but as you can see, it’s complicated,” Scully said about two hours into the debate before the evening vote. Scully said the bill approved Tuesday is the first of many he expects to be considered as Suffolk continues efforts to reduce nitrogen pollution from unsewered homes.

Bills requiring advanced septic treatment systems in some cases and designed to remove nitrogen from wastewater will be brought before the legislature in 2018, Scully said.

As required by the bill passed Tuesday, homeowners who want to replace aging cesspools starting in July of 2019 would have to add a septic tank. Since 1973, the county has required new homes to install both a septic tank and a cesspool. But those homes with failing cesspools have had the choice of installing a new one.

“The baby steps we’re hopeful to be taking today are long overdue, but nonetheless it’s still a very important place to be,” Legis. Kara Hahn (D-Setauket) said. Hahn, Legis. Al Krupski (D-Cutchogue) and Legis. Bridget Fleming (D-Noyac) worked on the legislation with environmentalists, builders and town officials.

Legis. Kate Browning (D-Shirley) said it makes no sense that so much of Suffolk is unsewered and lacking septic tanks.

“It boggles my mind,” Browning said. “We have to get rid of cesspools.”

But Legis. Robert Trotta (R-Fort Salonga), said he’d introduce a bill requiring failing cesspools be replaced with septic tanks but without needing a permit.

As part of the bill, the county will also issue permits for new septic systems and require liquid waste providers to report pump-outs and failed systems. Scully estimated the cost of a permit would be $70, adding that the county was exploring not imposing a fee at all and using a state grant to cover staff costs.

The bill also closes a loophole that had allowed commercial builders to discharge untreated wastewater based on past usage, a practice known as grandfathering. Developers who want to tear down old structures or expand existing buildings will have to install advanced systems that remove nitrogen.

A Newsday/News 12 investigation last year found that the county issues dozens of permits a year that allow developers to construct new buildings, add restaurant space and build condominium complexes based on measurements of sewage flows.

The first of two emergency versions of the bill introduced Tuesday would allowed replacement septic systems to be installed before getting a county permit. The second version clarified language that lawmakers worried gave too much discretion to the county Department of Health.

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