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New code allowing approval of advanced septic systems is released by county, roundly criticized by clean water advocate

Kevin McAllister speaking at a board meeting in Southold earlier this week. Photo: Denise Civiletti

A mandate for the use of improved septic system technology in Suffolk County is on the horizon.

The county this week released a draft of a new Suffolk County Sanitary Code article (see code below) that will allow property owners to install “innovative and alternative on-site wastewater treatment systems” that reduce nitrogen discharges to groundwater. The alternative systems must first be approved by the Suffolk County Department of Health Services and must meet performance standards established by the department.

The health department, which has been studying and testing advanced septic systems for several years, has not yet designated any such systems as approved for use. The department has also not yet published performance standards.

The changes to the sanitary code released this week authorize the health department to do both, a necessary first step, County Legislator Al Krupski (D-Cutchogue) said in an interview this week.

A draft of the new article 19 will be the subject of a June 15 public hearing before the Suffolk County Board of Health at its Great River office.

The Board of Health must adopt the new sanitary code article and the county legislature must then approve it, Krupski said.

It’s an important first step to finally addressing nitrogen pollution in Suffolk County, where an estimated 360,000 homes use conventional private septic systems that do not reduce nitrogen, Krupski said.

“If wastewater flow is being treated, I want to make sure the code states very clearly that the intention of the new article is not to increase density,” Krupski said. The county health department will generally allow higher development density where public water and wastewater treatment is available. Environmental and civic activists have expressed concerns that the availability of advanced septic systems would have that effect.

Krupski said he spoke to County Legislator William Spencer, a medical doctor who also sits on the Board of Health about adding that caveat to the code’s statement of legislative intent.

“We’ve set the bar far too low,” said Defend H20 founder and president Kevin McAllister, who attended a meeting convened by the health department Monday afternoon where the draft of the sanitary code provision was first circulated and discussed. McAllister says the county is not going far enough to seriously address the nitrogen crisis threatening our drinking water supply and water bodies.

Since the draft code itself doesn’t set performance standards for the advanced systems other than requiring “a greater reduction in total nitrogen” than conventional on-site wastewater treatment systems — which don’t effectively reduce nitrogen at all — the actual performance standards will be set by county health department staff. The staff is currently saying the standard will be set at 19 mg/l, both Krupski and McAllister said in interviews this week.

Conventional systems have a total nitrogen output of 50 to 60 mg/l, so 19 mg/l is a significant reduction, but existing technology allows for a far greater reduction, to under 10 mg/l, according to McAllister.

“Knowing what’s already out there in the marketplace — we can get down to the single digits for pretty basic technologies that are relatively inexpensive and not more costly than conventional systems,” McAllister said.

“The capabilities are there,” he said, asking why the county would settle for anything less. “With technology evolving, why have people install expensive systems that don’t even represent the best available technology today, never mind what may be best available in the future. Let’s face it, once one of these new systems is installed, it’s not being changed out for 20 years. Let’s get it right the first time because we won’t get a second chance.” But Suffolk County, McAllister said, is “stuck.”

McAllister points to Massachusetts, which he says is “years ahead of us” on this issue. He said they are exploring “basic layering systems, that instead of using large leaching pools release wastewater closer to the surface, by the root zone,” he said. “Sand provides aeration as the wastewater moves through the carbon source, wood chips or sawdust. It’s very basic science and it can get nitrogen down to 3 parts per million. It’s extremely affordable and extremely effective.”

A scientist with degrees in natural resources conservation, marine biology and coastal zone management, McAllister says the county health department is talking about 19 mg/l because “the 19 target is a safe zone.”

The county health department did not respond to a May 17 request for comment.

Krupski said the county is going with the 19 mg/l standard because does not want to set “unrealistic standards.”

The legislator said he believes the county health department will establish a list of approved systems this summer. As new systems are found to be more effective, they will be added along the way.

Krupski said the county is already piloting a “shallow, narrow drain field” system in Mastic.

“It’s really a subsurface trickle irrigation system,” he said. “And it will treat nitrogen as well as break down the personal care products in the waste stream, which is very important.” An added benefit is the system is “very low tech, relying on the soil to do a lot of work.”

As a former Southold Town trustee and councilman, Krupski said he too has been “frustrated for many years” by the county’s slow progress on this issue.

McAllister says a big part of the problem is the county’s predisposition to addressing this issue with sewering.

“There continues to be this push to sewer,” McAllister said. “They study, study and study, and when they finish these analyses, will the answer be pipe?”

“Big engineering projects are more profitable” for the big engineering firms that design and the construction firms that build them. Those firms have always been “very cozy with” elected officials and bureaucrats. He said no one should believe these firms “don’t have a hand in” developing the county’s wastewater management policies.

“Mr. Bellone likes to say sewering is not driving this,” McAllister said. “But
[at Monday’s meeting] they showed a map of sewer districts that they see as part of this nitrogen reduction program. There was one dot over the North Fork, presumably Mattituck. There was Montauk, East Hampton, West Hampton Beach and Mastic-Shirley, he said.

“This is in their work plan. I’ve been driving for full disclosure. This is about development, increasing apartments. I’m not dismissing sewering for economic growth purposes, but come clean on that if it’s not about clean water,” McAllister said.

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Denise Civiletti
Denise is a veteran local reporter and editor, an attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including a “writer of the year” award from the N.Y. Press Association in 2015. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website. Email Denise.