It was distressing to read the details of the consent decree Suffolk County signed with the U.S. Department of Justice to settle a federal prosecution for dozens of violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act.
The county was in violation of the federal law’s provisions that banned large-capacity cesspools some 18 years ago, in 2005.
Why is this distressing? Antiquated cesspools pollute our groundwater and, by extension, the bodies of water that surround us.
Waste material that flows into cesspools — including the stuff that gets flushed down the toilet — flow out of cesspools to the surrounding soils with no treatment to remove pathogens or organic nutrients such as nitrogen. The soil filters out some of the solid particles but wastewater “percolates” through the soil to the groundwater beneath the surface. And whatever hits the groundwater flows into the many surface waters all around us: the creeks, streams, river and bays.
The nutrients in that wastewater cocktail wreak havoc in our surface waters, where they serve as food for algae — organisms that multiply and create conditions that make it hard or even sometimes impossible for marine life to exist in our waters and along our shores. It’s well-documented that high nitrogen levels in our water bodies cause harmful “blooms” of algae and that many forms of marine life have suffered mightily as a result — with all the environmental and economic consequences that come with it.
Hundreds of thousands of homes and businesses in Suffolk County are not served by sewer systems which treat wastes for pathogens and nutrients before liquid wastewater, known as effluent, is discharged into surface waters or to the soil for additional filtration.
The waters of the Peconic River and its tributaries, such as Saw Mill Creek and Meetinghouse Creek, which part of the Peconic Estuary, a designated estuary of national significance, are classified as impaired — in large part due to our poor and tragically outmoded sanitation practices.
Assessing those consequences, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone rightly declared nitrogen “water public enemy number one” and his administration has devoted much time, money and effort to address nitrogen pollution to protect our precious waterways. We applaud those efforts. It’s extremely unfortunate, to put it mildly, that corrective measures weren’t begun in earnest years before Bellone took office and began to seriously address this problem. So very much is riding on our ability to fix it.
Be that as it may, we were disheartened to learn that the county is still maintaining 46 illegal, large-capacity (designed to serve 20 or more people per day) cesspools nearly all of them within county parks and recreation facilities.
Certainly, 46 of these polluting structures is a small number in the context of the thousands of antiquated cesspools on private properties in Suffolk. It is important to lead by example. The county’s failure to do so, even despite the county’s new sanitary codes forcing private property owners to implement new — and much more expensive — on-site wastewater treatment systems, smacks of hypocrisy. This is one crucial area where “do as I say, not as I do” is especially worthy of outrage.
Among the 46 antiquated and illegal large-capacity cesspools, two provoked our outrage more than almost all of the others: the two cesspools at the dump station at the Indian Island campground in Riverhead. People camping in RVs at the year-round Riverhead campground can empty their vehicles’ holding tanks — the tanks that hold wastewater from their toilets — into the dump station.
Those dump station cesspools are located about 300 feet from the water’s edge of Saw Mill Creek — just over eight yards. Whatever is dumped into those cesspools buried in the sandy soils of near the creek will transit those 8 yards and reach the surface water in 0-2 years. Campers might just as well be invited to dump their wastes directly into the water.
The county in the consent decree settling the DOJ prosecution must remove those two large-capacity cesspools at the Indian Island dump station and install a holding tank there so that RV wastes can be emptied into a structure that doesn’t flow almost immediately into the surface water. The holding tank will then be pumped out and its contents properly disposed at a sewage treatment plant.
The media total nitrogen measured by a monitoring station in Saw Mill Creek is double the median readings of other monitoring stations nearby, with the exception of Meetinghouse Creek.
Sure, there are other sources of nitrogen contributing to the high levels, such as nearby homes that may have antiquated cesspools polluting groundwater, and runoff carrying fertilizer into the waterway, for example.
But the close proximity of the dump station cesspools to the creek and the amount of use that the dump station gets from campers year-round make it especially reprehensible that those cesspools are still in use 18 years after federal regulations banned them.
The consent order contains a timeline that requires the county to have a holding tank installed there and operational — and the two cesspools rendered inoperable by Dec. 17, 2025. That means three more summer camping seasons (including this year) of dumping a large volume of untreated human waste almost directly into the Peconic Estuary.
Indian Island is not alone among county campgrounds that have dump stations “served” by large capacity cesspools. We could find only one county campground with a dump station — Cupsogue — that was not part of the consent decree. The other six county campgrounds, like Indian Island, have dump stations with no holding tanks: Montauk County Park, Cedar Point Park, Sears Bellows Park, Southaven Park, and Blydenburgh Park. We don’t know if any of them have dump stations so close to an impaired water body in an estuary of national significance.
The county must do better than the schedule spelled out in the consent decree for the dump station Indian Island. There’s no excuse for this frankly disgusting practice to continue for even one more season, let alone two. It’s gone on far too long already. Step it up, Suffolk.
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