Closes Loophole in Latest Step In Fight to Improve Water Quality on Long Island
Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone today signed legislation banning the continued installation of cesspools that have been identified as a primary source of nitrogen pollution that has degraded water quality throughout Suffolk County, contributing to harmful algae blooms, beach closures and fish kills.
“Today marks another historic step forward in our ongoing effort to reverse decades of nitrogen pollution that has degraded water quality in our lakes, bays and harbors, and it is a step that is long overdue,” said County Executive Bellone. “It is fairly unusual for the local governments, environmental groups and the region’s largest builders’ group to agree on the importance of tightening up outdated regulations to protect water quality, but that is exactly what happened in this instance. This inclusive, collaborative approach is making a huge difference in our efforts to reduce decades of nitrogen pollution.”
The County Executive was joined by Suffolk County Legislators, civic leaders, environmentalists, and representatives of the building industry for a bill signing ceremony overlooking Lake Ronkonkoma.
The use of cesspools in new construction has been banned in Suffolk County since 1973, when a requirement for the addition of a septic tank was added, but the County Sanitary Code did not require that homeowners add a septic tank when replacing an existing cesspool, making it legal to install a new cesspool to replace an existing one. But by now closing this loophole, it will advance the water quality efforts undertaken by Suffolk County and set the stage for the evolution away from the use of non-performing cesspools and septic systems to the use of new, state-of-the-art technologies that reduce nitrogen in residential wastewater by up to 70 percent.
In addition to banning the installation of new cesspools, the legislation approved by the Suffolk County Legislature on December 5 requires the wastewater industry to provide data regarding system replacement and pumping activities to the Department of Health Services beginning July 1, 2018, requires permits for replacement of existing systems effective July 1, 2019. The legislation also requires business properties with ‘grandfathered' non-conforming wastewater flows to install nitrogen reducing innovative-advanced systems if they make significant changes to the use of the property.
Suffolk County Legislator Kara Hann said: “For over 40 years, cesspools have been prohibited for new construction within the County, however, with the continued practice of grandfathering inadequate sanitary systems that are largely comprised of cesspools, we never advanced past that primitive technology. With today’s action I would like to say that we, as a county, have adopted the policies necessary to adequately address our region’s nitrogen pollution epidemic, but in reality this gets us closer to where we should have been in the decades following 1973,” said Suffolk County Legislator Kara Hahn a co-sponsor of the Article 6 revisions and chairwomen of the Legislature’s Environment, Planning and Agriculture Committee. “I thank the County Executive and my colleagues for taking these first steps toward correcting policies that have degraded our water quality and look forward to continuing the process of finally bringing Suffolk County’s sanitary code into the 21st century.”
Suffolk County Legislator Al Krupski said: “These changes to our sanitary code represent the hard work of many including the County Executive and his staff, Suffolk County Economic Development and Planning and the Department of Health Services. This is another big step towards cleaner water through the use of advanced wastewater technologies and I want to thank everyone who was involved in developing these important changes.”
Suffolk County Legislator Bridget Fleming said: “Today we take an important step toward eliminating the use of cesspools, and upgrading onsite septic systems throughout the county. These revisions represent more decisive action to clean up our water. This advance will be helpful in attracting much-needed funding for the enormous and critical task of reversing the destructive effects of contamination in our bays, creeks and harbors. That’s why I am proud and grateful to be part of a team that has finally stepped up to take action to revise the Sanitary Code’s woefully outdated wastewater regulations. And I am thankful to County Executive Steve Bellone and Deputy County Executive Peter Scully for their leadership.”
Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine said: “Closing this loophole is an important step in the continuing effort to protect our groundwater. Living on an island, one of our most vital resources is our water - both groundwater and surface water. For far too long we have seen them degrade because of high nitrogen levels. Brookhaven has been a leader in implementing new, stringent standards to offer greater protection, long-term conservation and water quality for the benefit of current and future generations.”
Both a Working Group comprised of County Legislators, town planners and engineers, representatives of environmental organizations – as well as the Long Builders Institute recommended the Sanitary Code changes. The County Board of Health and Council on Environmental Quality unanimously approved the changes.
The changes are the first in what is expected to be a series of updates of the County Sanitary Code over the next several years as county officials consider whether to put in place policies that require new nitrogen reducing system in new construction projects, require installation of the new systems when a cesspool or septic system fails and needs to be replaced, or upon sale of a property.
Over the past three years, the County has instituted a pilot program to test the new technologies, using a lottery system to select homeowners willing to have a donated system installed to demonstrate system performance. Under the pilot program, a total of 14 different technologies have been installed at 39 homes throughout the County. Four have been provisionally approved for use in the County after demonstrating six months of acceptable operating data.
In July, the County launched its voluntary Septic Improvement Program, the first of its kind in New York State, which provides grants and low interest financing to make the replacement of cesspools and septic systems with new IA technologies affordable for homeowners who choose to upgrade their systems. Over the first five months, nearly 850 homeowners have registered for the program, 228 have completed applications, and 160 have been awarded grants and are moving towards installation of the new systems.
In addition, Suffolk County was the first in the state to apply to for funding from New York State’s newly created, $75 million Septic System Replacement Fund, and will use the funding to expand its efforts to see the new technologies installed throughout the County.
Richard Amper, Executive Director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, said: “Today’s is a huge step toward ending pollution from cesspools and septic systems – Suffolk’s number one threat to clean water. Now, we’re not just complaining – we’re doing something about it.”
Kevin McDonald, conservation finance and policy director for The Nature Conservancy on Long Island, said: improving water quality on Long Island as our health, economy and quality of life are all inextricably linked to our waters,” said Kevin McDonald, conservation finance and policy director for The Nature Conservancy on Long Island. “There is more work to do but passage of this bill means less nitrogen pollution in our water, and more resilient, healthy bays and people — for generations to come.”
Mitchell H. Pally, Chief Executive Officer of the Long Island Builders Institute, said: “The Long Island Builders Institute is very pleased to stand here today with our friends from the environmental community to thank County Executive Bellone and the members of the County Legislature for their passage of this legislation which will be the first step in combating the nitrogen problem into our waterways. We look forward to making continuing progress in the months and years ahead on this most important issue for Suffolk County.”
Bob DeLuca, President of Group for the East End, said: “The Sanitary Code is the most important set of standards governing the proper disposal of Suffolk County’s wastewater, and these recent reforms establish a new framework for improved treatment and tracking of sewage, as well as improving the standards for septic system replacement. The restoration of our local waters requires actions on many fronts, but few are more important than updating the fundamental rules under which all septic systems are reviewed, approved and monitored over time.”
Adrienne Esposito, Executive Director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, said: “We can no longer allow inadequately treated sewage to mix with our sole source of drinking water. Modernizing our health codes is a common sense action that is critically needed for water protection. Kudos to County Executive Bellone and the Suffolk Legislature for updating our antiquated health codes and continuing the fight to protect public health."