Waste water in the final clarifier tanks at the Bergen...

Waste water in the final clarifier tanks at the Bergen Point Treatment Plant, Bergen Ave., Suffolk County Department of Public Works Southwest Sewer District #3. (Oct. 13, 2006) Credit: Michael E. Ach

Under pressure from environmentalists, aides to Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone are defending their decision to pass responsibility for local sewage-treatment plant inspections back to the state.

After laying off five workers in the health department's wastewater-management division, Suffolk wants New York's Department of Environmental Conservation to pick up the work. The cuts take effect Friday.

In a letter presented to lawmakers last week, representatives of four environmental-advocacy groups called wastewater management "one of the most challenging environmental and public-health issues facing the county," and the layoffs "truly indefensible."

But Deputy County Executive Jon Schneider said issuing sewage-treatment plant permits and monitoring discharge compliance was always a state duty that Suffolk took on willingly decades ago. And with the county facing a projected $530-million budget hole through next year, it can no longer afford to do the work. It anticipates saving several hundred thousand dollars.

"We're going to demand the state do their job," Schneider said. "We're saying, 'Either do your job or reimburse us for the cost of doing it.' "

Lisa King, a DEC spokeswoman, said Suffolk is the only New York county that issues permits under the State Pollutant Discharge Elimination System program, known as SPDES.

"Other counties may perform some SPDES functions, but not to the extent that Suffolk County does," King wrote in an email. "Years ago, other counties may have taken on more responsibilities, but they are not currently in that role."

DEC and county officials will meet this week to discuss how the program continues. King declined to comment on whether the state has enough employees to once again take the role.

Legis. John Kennedy (R-Nesconset) said he wants to know exactly how sewage-treatment plant enforcement will be affected in the near-term. He cited cases in his district in which private sewage-system violations required immediate action from the county.

"What happens when some private sewer plant explodes on July 3?" Kennedy said. "I've got nobody to call."

Suffolk's 192 wastewater-treatment plants now get quarterly inspections, officials said, and the backlog for new permits is roughly one month.

Deputy Health Commissioner Barry Paul recently told lawmakers that other county employees will ensure inspections continue while a permanent solution is reached with the state. "I don't know the level, but it will be monitored," he said. "We are not going to be abandoning the responsibility."

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