The Suffolk County Legislature on December 5th approved revisions to Suffolk County Sanitary Code Article 6 governing wastewater treatment systems, to prohibit the installation of cesspools in the County, and to require the use of new treatment technologies by businesses which do not comply with wastewater regulations and seek approval for new uses.
After extensive discussion for over a year by a working group comprised of local town officials, Suffolk County Legislators, including Legislators Bridget Fleming (LD-2), Al Krupski (LD-1) and Kara Hahn (LD-5), building industry representatives, environmentalists, and county Health Department officials, the proposed legislation was introduced by County Executive Steve Bellone on November 8th, and considered at the November 13th and November 27th meetings of the Environment, Planning and Agriculture Committee. The proposal was then amended following input from members of the Legislature. The final bill was co-sponsored by County Executive Bellone, Legislator Fleming and Legislator Hahn.
In the recent past, the Great South Bay produced more than half the clams eaten in the United States. But over the past 25 years, the clam harvest in the Great South Bay has fallen by 93 percent, destroying an entire industry which once accounted for 6,000 jobs. At the same time, from the mid-1980’s to the mid-1990’s, brown tide and harmful algal blooms almost drove the renowned Peconic Bay Scallop, native to East End bays and harbors, to local extinction. It is now widely accepted that nitrogen, which comes mostly from subsurface sewage disposal systems and cesspools, is the primary culprit. It impacts drinking water supplies and causes hypoxia, harmful algal blooms, diminution of fin and shellfisheries, and degradation of wetlands, that serve not only as habitat, but as the natural infrastructure that is critical to protecting inland property during storm surges and extreme weather events. During debate of the bill, Legislator Fleming noted, “unless we get a handle on the pollution that’s coming from the woefully outdated septic systems throughout our communities, we will see continuing and increasing devastating effects on the health, property values and the economy that supports Suffolk County families.”
Cesspools have been prohibited in new construction anywhere in Suffolk County since 1973, but there has been no regulation preventing the replacement of a cesspool with a new cesspool, even in sensitive environmental areas near creeks and bays.
More than 360,000 homes in Suffolk County rely on outdated cesspools and septic systems that do not properly treat waste or remove nitrogen. The Article 6 amendments come as a part of County Executive Bellone’s “Reclaim Our Water” initiative, an aggressive multi-pronged effort to reduce the amount of nitrogen pollution in groundwater, bays and estuaries. In addition to the Article 6 revisions, the County has also revised the Sanitary Code to include Article 19, designating the Suffolk County Department of Health Services as the regulatory authority over the onsite wastewater treatment systems, and implemented a Septic Improvement Grant and Loan Program, providing homeowners with up to $11,000 in grant money to install new nitrogen-removing technology and makes low interest financing available to cover the remaining costs.
The revisions approved Tuesday represent an important step toward eliminating the use of cesspools, and upgrading onsite septic systems throughout the county.
With regard to residential properties, the bill provides that:
Effective July 1, 2018, septic contractors must report all pumping, and replacements or retrofits of septic tanks, I/A OWTS, cesspools, grease traps, and leaching structures to the County Department of Health Services.
Effective July 1, 2019, any retrofit or replacement of an existing cesspool or individual sewerage system will require a Health Department permit.
Effective with the permit requirement for replacement systems, no property owner, contractor, or developer shall engage in the replacement or retrofit of an existing cesspool with a new cesspool.
With regard to commercial properties, the bill provides that any business properties that propose a change of use, expansion or reconstruction will no longer be permitted to rely on “grandfathered” wastewater flow permits that exceed what groundwater and surface waters can support, and in most instances will have to install nitrogen-removing systems.
Fleming stated, “I am proud and grateful to be part of a legislative body that has finally stepped up to take action to save our water, economy, and way of life. And I am thankful to County Executive Steve Bellone for initiating the Reclaim Our Water initiative and for his leadership, and the leadership of Deputy County Executive Peter Scully on setting as a top priority the reduction of contaminants, particularly nitrogen, in our precious water resources. These revisions represent another important step in cleaning up our water, and will be helpful in attracting much-needed funding for the enormous and critically important task of saving our waters.”
County Executive Steve Bellone said, “It is a rare occurrence when the business and environmental communities agree on a proposal to amend any regulation, but that is exactly what happened in this instance. As I have said many times, nitrogen is public water quality enemy number one. This legislation is another important step forward in the battle to reverse decades of nitrogen pollution.”
Dr. James Tomarken, Commissioner of Health Services, said, “It is imperative that we protect the sole source of drinking water in Suffolk County for future generations. I applaud the legislature for taking this important step.”
Deputy County Executive Peter A. Scully said, “Installing a cesspool as part of new construction has been prohibited in Suffolk County since 1973, but the replacement of an existing cesspool with a new one had never been addressed. We have much more work to do to protect water quality, but closing this loophole was critically important. I am thankful to County Executive Bellone and the Legislature for their hard work on this issue.”
“It has taken us over two years to get to this point and I am gratified I was able to participate in the working group since its inception and facilitate the participation of the East End Towns in the process,” said Legislator Al Krupski, who represents Southold, Riverhead and portions of eastern Brookhaven. “This was truly a collaborative effort and there are many to thank including County Executive Bellone, Suffolk County Economic Development and Planning, Suffolk County Department of Health Services and the other non-government stakeholders who participated. This is an ongoing process and I look forward to continuing this important work to protect our drinking water and our bays, creeks and estuaries, especially in the areas of water reuse, recharge and conservation.”