Suffolk County’s largest planned sewer expansion in decades is in jeopardy, officials say, unless additional grant funding can be found after bids returned this month put the cost at $497 million — $109 million more than officials have assembled from federal and New York State sources.
The bids, shared with Newsday by Deputy County Executive Peter Scully, cover the cost of sewering roughly 6,500 properties near Carlls River in Babylon and Forge River in Mastic, which voters approved in 2019, along with Patchogue River in Patchogue Village and Connetquot River in Oakdale. The projects are collectively known as the Suffolk County Coastal Resiliency Initiative.
County officials are working with Long Island’s congressional delegation to identify more funding that could become available if Congress takes up an infrastructure bill this spring. If that effort is unsuccessful, "we might be forced to consider scaling it back," said Scully, who declined to specify which elements could be eliminated or shrunk.
"To hear this now is breaking my heart," said Beth Wahl, president of the Chamber of Commerce of the Mastics and Shirley and a resident of the sewer district proposed for Forge River. Wahl said she'd argued for 20 years that sewers were key to building property value and encouraging business development. "If we do not get these sewers, we’re going to keep going on the way we are, polluting the river, and our business community will not survive."
After bids came in much higher than expected early last year, the county stopped the bidding process and redesigned its contracts to attract more bidders this year, steps that cut the funding gap by more than $50 million.
County officials have already moved ahead with some elements of the initiative, offering Brookhaven Town $2.1 million to buy three parcels totaling 29 acres at town-owned Calabro Airport in Shirley, where the county would build the Forge River sewage treatment plant and an accompanying leaching field. That purchase awaits approval by the county legislature.
County officials began planning in 2015 and, with help from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s Office of Storm Recovery, won federal grants intended to help rebuild communities and reduce hazards after Superstorm Sandy. They argued that sewering low-lying South Shore areas reliant on septic systems would guard against coastal flooding by reducing nitrogen levels, allowing for the regrowth of wetlands that provide a natural storm buffer.
About 360,000, or three-quarters of Suffolk homes, are not sewered, and many use cesspools that minimally treat wastewater before releasing it into the ground.
The projects won support from environmentalists but also organized labor and business groups who believe they will provide hundreds of good-paying jobs for local companies.
In 2019 referendums with limited voter turnout, voters in the project areas overwhelmingly approved Carlls and Forge rivers but rejected a sewer for Islip’s Great River. No vote was required for Patchogue. No vote has been scheduled for Oakdale, which was added after the Great River referendum. The estimated sewer tax to offset the cost of service is about $470, $532 and $850 respectively for the Forge, Carlls and Patchogue river areas.
But estimates for the projects' grant-funded construction costs gyrated. Minus Oakdale, which is on a different planning schedule and does not appear in all the historical estimates Scully shared, estimates dropped from $377.8 million to $275.4 million in 2017, then climbed to $475.8 million last year.
The 2017 drop came after county engineers recommended a change from conventional gravity collection to low-pressure sewers, a more efficient technology that requires electric-powered pumps at each parcel but is overall less disruptive to install.
Some of those promised savings vanished in later estimates or during bidding. In Patchogue, for instance, design engineer H2M architects + engineers based its early estimates on previous low-pressure sewer design work the company did for the village, said company vice president Steven Hearl. But county and grant funding requirements of using electric meters and connection by a licensed plumber for each parcel increased costs, he said. The pandemic slowed work and added to contractors’ costs, he said.
Forge and Carll River project designers Gannett Fleming and D&B Engineers and Architects did not respond to requests for comment.
Scully and Marc Herbst, executive director of the Long Island Contractors' Association, which represents most of the companies that may work on the projects, said that the county's decision to enter onto private property to do hookups instead of leaving the job to homeowners was a significant cost driver, entailing risk that contractors built into their bids. That approach, a departure from the county's last major expansion, in the 1970s, was a condition of federal funding and intended to ensure that more parcels are sewered.
Forge River was especially problematic, Scully said, because it has many rental properties and hard-to-reach absentee landlords. By September 2020, Gannett Fleming representatives had made as many as 10 visits to some properties to arrange inspections necessary to design sewer hookups, but had gotten no response from 594 homeowners.
Herbst said rising labor and material costs also drove up the overall price. But "there’s been a healthy bid process, with multiple bidders on every project," he said. "People need the work, and that helps keep the prices somewhat manageable."
Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, said septic and cesspool systems processing much of the county’s wastewater were "damaging our economy and our sustainability."
The sewer projects "are shovel-ready and critical projects," she said. "The county needs to work with our federal representatives to get the funding."
With Carl MacGowan