A Hydro-Action advanced wastewater treatment system.

The Town of East Hampton is moving ahead with a program to provide financial assistance to homeowners and businesses to upgrade their cesspool systems with new technology that drastically reduces nitrogen discharges.

It’s a program that should be county-wide — and could be through a bill authored by State Assemblyman Fred Thiele.

Some 75 percent of homes in Suffolk use cesspools. Riverhead and Southold Towns are heavily cesspool-dependent. This is problematic because the waste they discharge sends large amounts of nitrogen into the underground water table and are a major cause of what has raised havoc with surface water, causing brown tides and red tides and otherwise setting off eutrophication.

But in recent years there has been the development of new sanitary systems that limit nitrogen discharges to extraordinarily low levels.

The hitch is that they cost about $15,000 each. The Town of East Hampton is creating a program under which rebates would be provided—up to 100 percent of the $15,000. The money would be obtained by a change approved in referenda in the five East End towns in November in their Community Preservation Fund (CPF).

Accepted in referenda by East End voters in 1998, it has raised nearly $1.2 billion so far to save farmland, open space and historical sites. The change — okayed by voters in the five East End towns — allows for 20 percent of money raised by the CPF to be used for water-quality projects including the new low-nitrogen sanitary systems. The basis of CPF is a 2-percent transfer tax on most real estate transactions. It is paid for by buyers. The CPF also last year was extended to 2050.

There’s no such program in western Suffolk, although there was an effort several years ago to establish one in Brookhaven.

Thiele, of Sag Harbor, whose district includes Southampton, East Hampton and Shelter Island towns and a piece of Brookhaven, has just introduced a bill to establish a county fund dedicated to water purity so assistance for the installation of the improved systems that would be available countywide.

Thiele has been central to CPF since its outset. His measure is somewhat similar to a proposal advanced by County Executive Steve Bellone last year. It also is predicated on a charge on the amount of water used.

However, there was resistance to the Bellone plan by some state legislators who feared the money might be used by the county for other purposes.

Thiele’s bill provides tight controls. The monies collected would be in a “lock box” for no other use and, as noted in the measure, monitored through an “annual audit by an outside independent agency.” There would be a 15-member board of trustees administering what would be called the Suffolk County Water Quality Restoration Act. The board would work with an advisory committee. Moreover, the program would only come into being if voters approve it in a countywide referendum.

It would cover the entire county and on the East End be in addition to monies from the CPF. Thiele says that even with the CPF, the East End needs all the funding it can get too restore and preserve water quality.

Also, he said, the state is “probably” going to allot several billions to back clean water initiatives so with the program “Suffolk would be in a position to leverage and attract those dollars.”

Under Thiele’s measure, there would be a “water quality restoration fee” of one-tenth of one cent per gallon of water usage. The first 125,000 gallons would be exempt. The amount of usage would be figured on the records of the Suffolk County Water Authority and other water companies, and for places where wells are used, a chart outlining estimates. “It is estimated the fee would generate $50 to $60 million annually for water quality improvement projects in the County of Suffolk,” says a state memorandum on Thiele’s bill.

The East Hampton plan, if approved by the town board, would provide 100 percent—up to $15,000 — of the cost of new sanitary systems in the construction of new homes and businesses, mostly in areas designated as water protection districts. All new construction and any house or business undergoing substantial expansion would be required to have the low-nitrogen systems.

“New construction, you’ve got to have new technology,” said Town Supervisor Larry Cantwell in a discussion of the plan at a board meeting last month. Outside of water protection districts, property owners replacing existing cesspools would receive half the cost of replacement and for those with modest income, up to three-quarters of the cost.

Kevin McAllister, founder of the Sag Harbor-based organization Defend H20, who has long championed the new low-nitrogen systems, said he is “very pleased that East Hampton has taken the lead on this” and sees the county overall as “making great strides” in bringing the new low-nitrogen systems to Suffolk.

Karl Grossman is a veteran investigative reporter and columnist, the winner of numerous awards for his work and a member of the L.I. Journalism Hall of Fame. He is a professor of journalism at SUNY/College at Old Westbury and the author of six books. Grossman and his wife Janet live in Sag Harbor.

Suffolk Closeup is a syndicated opinion column on issues of concern to Suffolk County residents.

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