This isn’t exactly sexy, but, boy, is it ever important.
The Southold Town board has authorized the town engineer to attempt to inventory all private septic systems in the town.
Getting that inventory done is the only way the town can hope to set priorities for the massive task that lies ahead: retrofitting, upgrading or replacing the existing septic systems that everyone agrees are the biggest culprits in the nitrogen pollution that’s causing crisis conditions in the Peconic Estuary.
There’s been a lot of talk about addressing nitrogen pollution from septic systems. County Executive Steve Bellone declared after last year’s massive fish kill in the Peconic River that “Nitrogen is water public enemy number one.” He has made water quality a centerpiece of his administration’s agenda. And that’s great.
But where the rubber meets the road, the county continues to be excruciatingly slow to act. It has been studying advanced wastewater treatment systems for quite some time. It has funded the deployment of demonstration advanced septic systems for residences. But it has not approved the new systems for general use.
A revision of the county’s sanitary code is required to make the approvals possible. The county finally circulated a “discussion draft” of the proposed revised code this week. But the proposal is appallingly lacking in specifics.
It doesn’t even set forth performance standards, but for this: “the standards shall require the new systems to achieve a greater reduction in total nitrogen than that of conventional systems currently in use.”
Since conventional systems don’t actually treat for nitrogen, the bar is set ridiculously low. We can and must do better.
We should be looking to require the best available treatment technology. This is going to be an expensive proposition. We must make sure we’re deploying technology that has a long shelf life to serve the community into the future — not technology that has already been surpassed.
Furthermore, the county has no digital database of existing systems, according to the Southold Town engineer, who has proposed creating one for all systems with the Town of Southold.
Without that, how can you possibly prioritize what must be done? How do you even fully understand the scope of work?
The county executive says there are 360,000 unsewered households with outmoded septic systems that must be replaced or retrofitted with new technology that treats for nitrogen removal. He has proposed a $1 per thousand gallons water use tax, to create a fund that will be meted out by the county to address this problem.
But that doesn’t even address larger septic systems serving businesses, offices and institutions.
And without an inventory like the one Southold is smartly embarking upon, how will the decisions be made for allocation of the fund?
All of this points to two things: first, a knee-jerk reaction to build new sewage treatment plants or expand existing ones; second, the ultimate short-changing of the East End towns. Here on the East End, much of the land mass is, in fact, unsewered and sewage treatment plants, traditionally drivers of high-density development, are not wanted by residents or officials.
Bellone’s water use tax will create a fund that will be sucked up by western Suffolk sewage treatment systems.
Also, if the tax generates $75 million a year, it will take more than 150 years to retrofit or replace the existing conventional systems at their current cost. Obviously, prioritization is essential so we can deal with systems that, because of their location and/or size, create the biggest or most urgent problems.
Other towns should follow Southold’s lead. And the state should provide funding to underwrite the costs of getting this done.
Meanwhile, county legislators should demand specifics before agreeing to set a referendum on the proposed water use tax. And if the legislators lack the political will to press those demands, voters must be sure there are specific performance standards in place and a clear, specific, prioritized and equitable plan spelled out for allocating the funds before casting their vote to approve a water use tax.
Denise Civiletti is an owner of East End Local Media Corp., publishers of SoutholdLOCAL and RiverheadLOCAL. An award-winning reporter, including a “Writer of the Year” award from the N.Y. Press Association in 2015, she is an attorney, former Riverhead Town councilwoman (1988-1991) and former co-publisher and executive editor of The Suffolk Times. The views expressed in this column are hers alone.
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