Indian Island County Park in Riverhead. Photo: Denise Civiletti

Suffolk County, which has made the elimination of cesspools and septic systems a lynchpin of a water quality program focused on reducing nitrogen pollution, has been prosecuted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for maintaining 46 large-capacity cesspools county parks in violation of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act and regulations for nearly two decades.

The action also charged the county with maintaining two motor vehicle waste disposal wells in violation of federal law since 2008.

The county settled the prosecution in federal court last month with a consent decree and judgment requiring it to close the illegal cesspools at 13 Suffolk Parks Department properties, including the Indian Island County Park in Riverhead, and replace them with innovative alternative systems (IAS) that reduce nitrogen in wastewater before discharge. It must also close two motor vehicle waste disposal wells at a county police district garage in Hauppauge.

The estimated cost of the closures is just over $7 million, according to a press release issued last month by U.S. Attorney Breon Peace.

Suffolk County also agreed to pay a civil penalty of $200,000 and to pay penalties of between $750 and $2,000 per day for failure to comply with the terms of the judgment, which requires Suffolk to meet a series of milestone dates at each of the park properties for closure plans, IAS design, permits, bids, construction and completion, with the entire project being wrapped up by January 2031.

The County Legislature authorized the consent judgment on June 6. The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York announced the judgment June 14. It is subject to a 30-day public comment period that began when the consent decree was published in the Federal Register June 22. The public comment period ends July 22. Read the consent decree and judgment below. Submit comments by email or by U.S. Mail to Assistant Attorney General, U.S. DOJ—ENRD, P.O. Box 7611, Washington, DC 20044–7611.

Large-capacity cesspools have an open bottom or perforated sides and are big enough to handle sanitary systems designed to serve 20 or more persons per day.

Cesspool receive untreated waste, including human feces and urine, from sanitary systems. The untreated waste is high in harmful nutrients, such as nitrogen, that pollute groundwater and surface waters. Cesspools allow liquid waste to leach into the soil without any pretreatment. As the liquid waste percolates into the ground, most of the pathogens it contains, such was bacteria or viruses, are filtered out by the surrounding soil. The liquid that reaches the groundwater remains high in nitrogen. Groundwater flows toward surface waters, carrying the nitrogen with it.

According to the consent judgment, the county is operating four large-capacity cesspools at Indian Island County Park: two at dump stations it maintains at the park, which has a large campground. The two dump station cesspools must be replaced by a holding tank by December 2025 under the terms of the consent decree. The other two large-capacity cesspools, located at the park ranger’s office according the consent decree, must be replaced by innovative alternative systems by September and December 2025. The judgment does not address how waste generated at the park’s two restroom facilities is currently being handled.

Other county parks and facilities subject to remediation under the consent decree include Peconic Dunes Camp in Southold (seven large-capacity cesspools), Sears Bellows Park in Hampton Bays (two large-capacity cesspools), Shinnecock Marina (four large-capacity cesspools), Cedar Point Park in East Hampton (five large-capacity cesspools) and Montauk County Park (four large-capacity cesspools), as well as five parks and a golf course in western Suffolk.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, who has declared nitrogen “water public enemy number one” has championed nitrogen removal from wastewater and led the county’s efforts to mandate IAS systems for new residential and commercial construction in unsewered areas of the county, where there are an estimated 360,000 homes — more than 70% of all homes in the county — and 11,800 commercial properties that rely on conventional cesspools and septic systems.

The Bellone Administration has led efforts to mandate IAS systems for new construction and the replacement of failing cesspool and septic systems in the county. It has also pushed to establish a wastewater management district and implement a state-authorized 1/8% sales tax to fund IAS grants and sewage treatment improvements. Authorizing legislation was enacted by the state this year, but bills to establish the district and put the sales tax increase, which is subject to a mandatory referendum, on the ballot in November stalled in the County Legislature last month.

“The county is pleased to have resolved these legacy issues and appreciates EPA’s having acknowledged that Suffolk County has become recognized leader in the use of advanced technologies at its parks facilities to protect water quality,” Deputy County Executive Peter Scully said in statement emailed by the county executive’s press office.

The press office spokesperson said in a separate email that the county has had a program underway since 2014 to replace existing systems at parks facilities with IA systems, which go “beyond what is required by EPA regulations.” The EPA “requires only that a septic tank be added to systems in order for them to remain in place,” the spokesperson said.

The county will pay the cost of improvements required by the consent decree with a capital project established for that purpose, according to the press office spokesperson.

“The county is unaware of any effort by EPA to bring any of the hundreds of privately owned sites that rely on large capacity cesspools into compliance,” she said.


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