By Stephen J. Kotz
That taking practical steps to protect the groundwater from the ravages of nitrogen loading from residential septic systems has become the hot environmental topic de jour was illustrated Friday afternoon when at least 60 people met at East Hampton Town Hall for a forum on advancements in the art of treating wastewater sponsored by Suffolk County.
Deputy Suffolk County Executive Peter Scully told the gathering that the county is taking groundwater and surface water pollution seriously. He noted that approximately 70 percent of the nitrogen pollution in the Great South Bay is believed to be coming from malfunctioning home septic systems, and that nitrogen-related pollution had led to toxic algae blooms, the closing of shellfishing grounds and fish die-offs.
With more than 350,000 such systems installed today across the county, he said it was a daunting — and expensive task to fix the problem.
In 2014, the county worked with consultants from IBM, who concluded, “this is a problem you cannot afford not to address,” he said. And they placed an $8 billion price tag on it, he added.
Toward that end, he said the county has sponsored a pilot program in which 19 homeowners have qualified for new state-of-the art treatment systems that actively remove nitrogen from wastewater unlike conventional septic systems, which merely pass it through to the soil.
County Executive Steve Bellone “believes we can’t hope the program will be successful unless we can find a way to make these replacements affordable for homeowners through grants,” he said.
Voters in both East Hampton and Southampton last month approved referendums allowing up to 20 percent of their highly successful Community Preservation Funds to be used for water quality programs, and both towns have said they would target failing septic systems by offering homeowners rebates to replace them.
“Things are changing here,” said East Hampton Supervisor Larry Cantwell. “The world of individual septic systems and wastewater systems on individual lots is changing, and it is changing now.”
Mr. Scully also said the county recognizes that replacing aging septic systems will offer “a great economic opportunity” for businesses that have the know-how to both install and service modern treatment systems. The county, he added, had established a licensing program that will make sure technicians are properly trained and certified and has been working on updating its sanitary code to regulate the installation and maintenance of systems, which, he said will likely be required in all new construction in the near future.
Justin Jobin, the county health department’s environmental projects coordinator, said that during the first phase of the county’s pilot program, four manufacturers had offered six different technologies, with 19 systems installed throughout the county, with the last one put in last January. The county has been monitoring the systems for effectiveness and has already approved two of them for general use and expects to approve more in the near future, he said.
When the county announced it would move forward with phase two of its pilot program, another six manufacturers jumped in with eight more technologies because they realized “we are a train that is moving forward,” Mr. Jobin said.
Most of the tested systems have exceeded the county’s goal of reducing the amount of nitrogen to less than 19 milligrams per liter, he said, with the county certifying two technologies, the Hydro Action system and the Norweco Singulair TNT system, for use in the county.
The problem remains that they are more expensive than conventional septic tanks with leaching rings, costing about $10,000 more than the $6,000 to $8,000 cost of a conventional system, Mr. Jobin said. Unlike conventional systems, which experts say should be inspected about every three to five years and pumped if necessary, modern systems cost about $300 a year in maintenance and require that samples be sent to the county at least once a year.
Representative of companies selling the two certified systems also spoke. Joe Densieski of Wastewater Works, Inc., touted the Hydro-Action systems his firm sells while Tom Montabline and Bob Eichinger, representing Roman Stone Construction Company, talked up the Singulair systems made by Norweco that their company sells.
Because the systems actively treat the waste by injecting oxygen into the tanks and mixing the effluent, they use about $18 of electricity per month, they said. Responding to questions from the audience, the systems could be used in houses that are shut down for the winter — or used rarely — with some adjustments.