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Suffolk County Water Authority customers to pay extra $80 per year

The Suffolk County Water Authority's Advanced Oxidation Process

The Suffolk County Water Authority's Advanced Oxidation Process treatment system, designed to remove the contaminant 1,4-dioxane from groundwater, at the SCWA Commercial Boulevard pump station in Central Islip in December 2018. Credit: Barry Sloan

Suffolk County Water Authority customers will have to pay an extra $80 per year for treatment of soon-to-be regulated contaminants, including 1,4-dioxane, starting January 1.

The fee, passed by the water authority board on Thursday, will raise $177 million over the next five and a half years through a quarterly charge on bills for 395,000 residential and commercial customers.

New York State has proposed new drinking water standards for three new chemicals, the first in 20 years. Water providers have warned of steep costs — an estimated $840 million Islandwide for 1,4-dioxane alone — and difficulty in getting enough treatment systems up and running.

The Suffolk County Water Authority, which serves 1.2 million people, has been working to prepare for treatment systems at 76 sites where contamination is at or above half of the proposed standard.

"We’ve been moving as fast as we can with getting treatment in place," said Suffolk County Water Authority president Jeffrey Szabo. "We've been taking from the existing overall budget to pay for the costs. Now that the state is essentially ready to set [a] new standard, it’s entirely appropriate to set a new fee so that it can be paid for."

In Nassau County, water districts have also looked at raising rates. Some have warned that if the state doesn't give them more time to meet the standard, they’d take dramatic conservation measures, including bans on lawn irrigation and filling swimming pools, rather than serve customers water that violates state standards. Hicksville Water District has already issued a moratorium on new residential and commercial water connections.

Other advocates and state lawmakers have suggested turning to New York City's upstate water supply, which studies have found to be less contaminated, to meet some of Long Island's demands.

While the state Department of Health has yet to release its final regulation, the Suffolk County Water Authority said it expects the treatment costs to be necessary.

1,4-dioxane is a stabilizer in solvents associated with manufacturing, which is also found in cosmetics and household products. The EPA lists it as a likely carcinogen, and it has been associated with liver and kidney damage. The other two contaminants being regulated are perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), found in firefighting foams, and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), found in nonstick and stain-resistant products.

Szabo said 56 wells have contamination of 1,4-dioxane at least half of the state standard, which is when the district starts treating for contaminants.

Another 20 wells have contamination of PFOS and PFOA, which are part of a classification of chemicals known as PFAS that has been getting increasing scrutiny from national lawmakers and regulators. The International Agency for Research on Cancer, which is part of the World Health Organization, lists it as a possible carcinogen.

1,4-dioxane has been the major concern for Long Island water regulators because of how difficult it is to remove and how prevalent it is in groundwater here, at some of the highest drinking water concentrations in the nation.

The state has only approved two treatment systems on Long Island. The state has estimated that 89 systems will be necessary to treat to their proposed standard of 1 part per billion, 82 of which are on Long Island.

The Hicksville Water District's moratorium on water connections will effectively prevent new development there, while the Bethpage Water District passed a ban on nonessential water use, including watering lawns and filling swimming pools, that would go into effect once the state starts enforcing new drinking water standards.

The New York State Department of Health issued draft regulations earlier this year, and has previously said it was reviewing almost 5,000 public comments about the standards. Environmental and health advocates said that the state's proposed standards aren't protective enough of public health.

At least 26 Long Island water providers and governments have filed lawsuits in Eastern District federal court against 1,4-dioxane manufacturers and distributors seeking to recover costs for cleanup and contamination. Some, including Suffolk County Water Authority, have filed suit over the PFOA and PFOS contamination.

Szabo said it would take years to recover money from the lawsuits. While the initial $177 million price tag would cover initial capital costs — including giant tanks of crushed carbon and systems with dozens of ultraviolet lights — the fee would be ongoing to cover the $20 million per year cost to operate and maintain them.

The water authority board voted 5-0 on Thursday night at the meeting at its offices in Oakdale.

Timothy Hopkins, general counsel for Suffolk County Water Authority, said the authority instituted a flat fee per customer instead of based on usage because they were looking for a stable revenue source.

"We know how much we have to spend to put treatment systems in," he said. "We have to make sure we have a steady stream of revenue."

The state Department of Health is continuing to review comments. The state has earmarked $200 million for water providers to manage emerging contaminants to “help ensure cost is not a barrier to protecting public health and the environment," spokeswoman Erin Silk wrote in a statement.

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