SUFFOLK HEALTH OFFICIALS ADVANCE SANITARY CODE CHANGES
Experts Support Science-Based Measures to Better Protect Water Quality
Efforts Continue to Reduce Pollution From Cesspools and Septic Systems
Unanimous Approval by Board of Health Sends Measures to Legislature
The Suffolk County Board of Health has unanimously approved changes to the county’s Sanitary Code that require the use of nitrogen-reducing wastewater technologies in unsewered areas of the county for all new construction and allow greater flexibility for the use of small sewer plants in downtown business districts, Commissioner of Health Services Dr. Gregson Pigott announced today. The code amendments, the first policy changes being advanced based on recommendations in the county’s 2019 Subwatersheds Wastewater Plan, are strongly supported by both environmental groups and by the Long Island Builders Institute (LIBI). The measures will next be considered by the Suffolk County Legislature at its general meeting on September 9.
“These code amendments are five years in the making, are data driven, are based on sound science, and will help to protect our groundwater, bays and harbors,” said Dr. Pigott. “At the same time, the changes will be a shot in the arm for the economy of downtown business districts during the economic recovery from the COVID pandemic. The timing for this important step forward could not be better.”
The lack of sewers in most areas of the county has been a longstanding public policy concern in the region, resulting in constraints on development in downtown areas and continued reliance on cesspools and septic systems, which have been identified in multiple studies as the primary source of excess nutrients that have degraded water quality and contributed to harmful algal blooms, beach closures and loss of shellfish populations.
In 2014, a team of experts assigned by IBM to assess the lack of sewers as part of the company’s Smarter Cities Challenge program, urged the county to develop a long-term plan to expand the use of active wastewater treatment infrastructure. A holistic wastewater strategy was also recommended in the county’s 2015 Comprehensive Water Resources Management Plan, which documented continuing and steady degradation of water quality due mostly to legacy septic systems. The Subwatersheds Wastewater Plan, completed last year, was developed in response to those recommendations with strong support from the Long Island Regional Planning Council (LIRPC) and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) as part of the Long Island Nitrogen Action Plan (LINAP). The plan recommends a limited number of new sewer connections and, more broadly, the use of individual nitrogen reducing septic systems (IA/OWTS) to move away from reliance on cesspools and septic systems which have impacted water quality.
“For decades, scientists have warned that the lack of sewers throughout most of Suffolk County is a significant threat to both our environment and our economy,” said Dr. Pigott. “Because sewers are not a cost-effective solution to protect water quality in most areas, some towns and villages have already put requirements in place for the use of Innovative and Alternative Onsite Wastewater Treatment Systems in new construction, while others have not. This legislation will create unified and consistent requirements, providing uniform requirements and greater clarity in the regulatory process.”
The changes would also increase the amount of flow and reduce required setbacks for small sewage treatment plants (STPs). These systems reduce nitrogen by greater than 85 percent and can facilitate major nitrogen reductions in already developed areas with limited space for the siting of wastewater treatment systems, such as downtown business districts.
Over the past several decades, Suffolk County’s groundwater and surface water quality have been plagued by elevated and increasing levels of nitrogen loading into the environment. While all sources of water pollution are concerning, nitrogen from cesspools and septic systems has been the most widespread and least well addressed of the region’s growing list of pollutants. Excess nitrogen from cesspools and septic systems has been linked to harmful algal blooms, hypoxia and fish kills, and contributed to the collapse of Suffolk County’s hard clam populations, which once supported a multi-million dollar industry that accounted for over 6,000 jobs. The harmful effects ultimately destabilize wetlands, aquatic vegetation and ecosystems, impairing coastal resiliency.
Because approximately 74 percent of Suffolk County remains unsewered, individual residences and businesses rely primarily on antiquated onsite wastewater disposal systems, which are not designed to remove nitrogen. There are approximately 380,000 existing cesspools and septic systems in the county. After 1973, newly installed systems were required to include both septic tanks and leaching pools. The Plan notes, however, that more than 253,000 of the existing systems were built before 1973, and are simply cesspools, which essentially serve as injection wells that direct contaminants towards groundwater. The groundwater in Suffolk County is part of a sole-source aquifer that provides the region’s drinking water but is also the primary source of nitrogen contamination to streams and bays. The SWP, along with five other independent scientific studies published in the last decade, have identified nitrogen from onsite wastewater systems as the single largest source of nitrogen pollution to the water resources of the County, including about 70 percent of the nitrogen input to local bays.
The SWP is the first science-based study ever to delineate more than 190 individual watershed areas in Suffolk County, establish goals for reducing nitrogen inputs into each area, and to establish a recommended roadmap for how to address nitrogen emanating from the 380,000 antiquated sanitary systems. While sewer connections make sense in select geographic areas, a fundamental conclusion and recommendation in the SWP is that the use of I/A OWTS represents the most cost effective means to reduce nitrogen from wastewater sources in most areas of the County. The SWP also estimates that nitrogen from onsite wastewater sources may increase an additional 20 percent if the county continues to use the existing antiquated wastewater disposal systems, making the use of I/A OWTS for new construction paramount to restoring and protecting water quality throughout the county. If the full recommendations of the SWP are enacted, it is projected that the trend of worsening water quality will be arrested and reversed within 10 years. This proposed legislation is an important step in reclaiming our water.
The use of I/A OWTS is not new to Suffolk County nor the United States. Recognizing the need to protect their local water resources, the towns of East Hampton, Southampton, Brookhaven, and Shelter Island along with five villages have already advanced policies requiring the use of I/A OWTS for new construction in various geographic areas. In addition, states such as Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Maryland, and New Jersey have set forth requirements for the use of I/A OWTS in environmentally sensitive areas, while the voluntary use of I/A OWTS is currently implemented in 37 states across the nation.
While the proposed legislation represents a major milestone in the advancement of the SWP, significant progress has already been made at the county level to shift away from the use of conventional sanitary systems. In 2016, Suffolk County established Article 19 of the Suffolk County Sanitary Code, which sets forth the most rigorous I/A OWTS testing and approval process in the United States. Article 19 also establishes a Responsible Management Entity to oversee the approval, installation, permitting, and performance of all I/A OWTS.
In 2017, Suffolk County unveiled the Septic Improvement Program [SIP], which provides homeowners grant awards of up to $20,000 for the installation of approved I/A OWTS. An astounding success, 1,736 homeowners have applied for the program, resulting in the issuance of 937 issued grants. In recognition of the success of the program, Suffolk County was awarded $10 million or nearly 70 percent of $15 million allocated across the entire state in the first funding round for the New York State Septic Replacement Program [SSRP] to provide additional incentives to homeowners for the installation of I/A OWTS. An estimated 1,000 I/A OWTS have been installed countywide, 522 of which have been installed under the SIP and SSRP.
If adopted by the Suffolk County Legislature, changes to small STP capacity and setbacks would become effective immediately in 2020, on filing of the new code. The requirements for nitrogen reducing wastewater technologies for new construction will become effective in 2021.
Christopher J. Gobler, Ph.D., Endowed Chair of Coastal Ecology and Conservation School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences Director, New York State Center for Clean Water Technology Stony Brook University, said:
"These proposed changes to the health code represent critical steps in the restoration of Suffolk County's water quality and demonstrate that the county is not simply studying the problem, but rather is taking action to protect public health and coastal ecosystems. For decades, scientists documented declines in water quality that contributed to the collapse of vital shellfish industries, like hard clams and bay scallops. Now, Suffolk County is using the best science available to make the changes needed to reverse decades of decline. We will all reap the benefit of these changes for decades to come."
John Cameron, Chairman of the Long Island Regional Planning Council, said: “Of prime importance for Suffolk County, indeed for all Long Island, is water quality. The county’s code amendments, rooted in rigorous science, will help to protect and restore surface water and groundwater quality alike while addressing the critical need for affordable housing. Given the economic challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, these changes are particularly welcome since they will provide a much-needed boost to the economy of downtown business districts. These amendments are essential to the implementation of the county’s Subwatersheds Wastewater Plan and to achieving the goals and vision identified by the Long Island Nitrogen Action Plan (LINAP). As a LINAP partner, we thank Suffolk County for its continued leadership in aggressively addressing the region’s nitrogen pollution problem.”
Mitchell Pally, Executive Director of the Long Island Builders Institute said:
“The Long Island Builders Institute strongly believes that the proposal of the county to increase the allowable flow for small sewage treatment plants will provide both significant economic as well as environmental benefits for all of our county. These small sewage treatment plants will enable mid-size projects to be located within already developed areas, thus reducing the amount of green space which will be under development pressure. In addition, such plants provide a much lower flow of nitrogen into our groundwater than even our new I/A plants, thus allowing the same number of units to be of great benefit to the local community. We thank our county leaders for taking this very important step in our ability to both provide much needed housing and much lower nitrogen flow.”
Kevin McDonald, Conservation Policy Advisor for The Nature Conservancy’s Long Island Chapter, said:
“Requiring new home construction and major renovation projects to install clean water septic systems is a win-win for our communities and economy. Preventing nitrogen pollution from contaminating our drinking water and waterways will help to lower the overall cost of cleaning up Long Island’s waters over the long term. With demand for these new technologies already increasing, the Legislature’s approval of Introductory Resolution 1643 will encourage manufacturers to continue investing in Long Island and help to create even more good paying jobs.”
Bob DeLuca, President of the Group for the East End, said:
“Suffolk County has recently completed the most extensive investigation of its water quality problems in over 40 years, and the findings are clear. Sewage from failing and outdated septic systems is polluting our bays, harbors and drinking water, and we must take action to preserve our way of life and protect public health. We know how to solve the problem with proven new technology and the amendments to Article 6 are a critical first step in assuring that state of the art sewage treatment is now the standard and not the exception for new construction throughout Suffolk County.”
Adrienne Esposito, Executive Director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, said:
“Implementing policies that ensure waste water is adequately treated is a necessity. Treating our sewage is the only way to heal our waters and protect public health. It doesn’t make any sense to continue to put antiquated septic systems in the ground and then pay the public to remove them and upgrade to a new innovative alternative system. Updating health code regulations to address today’s water quality crises should have bi-partisan support.”