Toby Pellicci was one of the first 100 homeowners to participate in a Nassau County program that awards grants of up to $20,000 to replace old septic tanks and cesspools with a more modern septic system that reduces the amount of nitrogen entering Long Island’s water supply.
Pellicci, 57, of Bayville, had the system installed last year and said the county reimbursed her costs.
"It's just better all around," said Pellicci. "I'd rather have a better environment for my kids going forward."
Last month marked the 100th installation of the nitrogen-reducing equipment in the county, with most of the installations in the Town of Oyster Bay, according to Nassau's Soil and Water Conservation District.
The program, which started in 2021 and had disbursed $4.2 million in grant funding by the start of November, is called the Septic Environmental Program to Improve Cleanliness (SEPTIC). A similar program started in Suffolk County in 2017.
Olivia Cunningham, a conservation technician for the Soil and Water Conservation District who helps manage Nassau's septic replacement program, said more than 40,000 homes on the North Shore have conventional septic tanks or cesspools.
A septic tank collects waste from toilets and drains before dispersing liquids into a leach field, where bacteria filters the wastewater. A cesspool is a pit typically lined with concrete that holds waste but doesn't filter it. Both release nitrogen, pollution the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says triggers degraded water quality, toxic algae blooms and fish die-offs.
The more advanced equipment, known as an innovative/alternative septic system, is designed to mitigate the annual 40 pounds of nitrogen the average residential septic system discharges.
The systems can reduce that discharge by up to 70%, according to the Long Island Sound Study, a collaboration of government agencies and groups dedicated to protecting the Sound.
“Septic systems and outdated cesspools are one of the number one reasons for high levels of nitrogen in our local water bodies, and on Long Island we're on top of our watershed, so it's really important that we mitigate the nitrogen that's being put into our environment,” Cunningham said.
Records show that earlier this year, Oyster Bay Cove mandated nitrogen-reducing systems for new construction and major home improvements.
That made the municipality the first in the county to pass the rule, according to Maxwell Tetrault, water quality coordinator for nonprofits The Nature Conservancy and North Shore Land Alliance, which do volunteer work helping homeowners obtain the septic system grants.
East Hills has since passed similar legislation, according to village building inspector Tom Murphy.
Derek Betts, district manager of the Soil and Water Conservation District, said Nassau's grant program now has about $8 million in funding available.
When it comes to the future, Cunningham said the district issued a plan last year calling for 2,000 installations by 2032, with a minimum funding allocation of $40 million.
The plan is "dependent upon a Nassau County funding contribution in addition to existing and future state and federal funding sources," the document says. Cunningham said those funding sources haven't been secured.
A spokesperson for County Executive Bruce Blakeman didn't immediately comment on funding Thursday.
Industry personnel who work with septic systems say obstacles exist when it comes to wider adoption of the nitrogen-reducing technology locally.
Salvatore Motta, who co-owns Islandia-based Discount Cesspool & Drain Inc., said complex permitting requirements are an impediment to installation.
"The process is so long and tedious that some homeowners don’t feel like doing it," he added.
Tetrault echoed that sentiment.
"Every little village here, which there are many, they all have different regulations, different permitting requirements. And that’s something that really does sort of throw a wrench into streamlining the process," he said.