It’s not every day that a business owner, especially one who sells food, wants to talk about wastewater treatment.
“It’s not an appetizing subject, but I’m super proud of what we did,” said Abbey Warsh, owner of Harbor Market and Kitchen in Sag Harbor, of her business’s nearly three-year-long odyssey to replace a failing septic system with a new state-of-the-art, on-site wastewater treatment system that not only drains wastewater into the soil but removes almost all of the polluting nitrogen from it.
John Parry of South Fork Septic Services of Southampton, who serviced the Harbor Market’s old system and was involved in the replacement project, said waste entering the new system contains an average of 300 milligrams of nitrogen in each liter, but by the time that waste is treated and released into the soil, only 1.5 milligrams remains per liter. He added that the Suffolk County Department of Health Services, which oversees wastewater treatment systems, wants to see no more than 19 milligrams per liter enter the ground after treatment by a commercial system. The standard for potable water is less than 9 milligrams of nitrogen per liter, he added.
The decision to bite the bullet on the expensive, but environmentally-friendly, system was made easier by the fact that Harbor Market spent an estimated $50,000 to have as much as 10,000 gallons of water a week pumped from its original septic system during the last year it was in operation. However, Ms. Warsh would not disclose the full cost of the project.
Mr. Parry said septic systems can fail over time when the ground surrounding the cesspool rings gets inundated with foreign matter like grease and fat and no longer drains efficiently. When that happens, the septic tank backs up, requiring regular pumping.
If she had to do it all over, Ms. Warsh said she probably would have replaced the septic system when she renovated the former Espresso Market in 2014 and 2015, but it was not on her radar as she tried to appease neighbors who raised objections to her plans and obtain village approvals to open. “When we bought the property, the system was already starting to fail,” she said, adding that those problems only worsened over time.
Traditional septic systems, which collect solid waste in a septic tank before returning the liquid to the groundwater by way of cesspool rings without removing any contaminants, are being phased out in Suffolk County. They also aren’t practical in a place like Sag Harbor with tiny building lots that are simply too small to allow for septic systems to be expanded while meeting the required setbacks from neighboring properties.
Harbor Market hired David Rhoades, a Sag Harbor engineer, to design the new system. “It was a very difficult puzzle to solve within the walls of a postage-stamp-sized lot and with all the guidelines to follow,” Ms. Warsh said.
But Mr. Rhoades, who used to live in the Pacific Northwest, was familiar with the Washington State-based Nibbler Company, which sells alternative wastewater treatment systems that maintain a healthy population of microbes that feed on the waste early in the treatment process and reduce the amount of nitrogen that eventually returns to the soil.
That didn’t mean it was an easy task. Mr. Parry said contractors had to maneuver a crane onto the constrained site and dig approximately 60 feet deep to find the kind of clean sand the county health department would approve.
“I was 100 percent concerned,” Ms. Warsh said. “How do you dig 60 feet deep and not have it collapse?”
“The work of digging the system was typical of what is required,” Mr. Parry added. “It was not difficult. It was the planning that was difficult.”
While Ms. Warsh said she is happy to have a clean system in place and no longer have a diesel truck idling outside her business every week while the septic tank is pumped, “the circle of greenness and sustainability has not been completely closed of the power needs” required by the system.
She said she would like to install solar panels to remedy that, but noted that the village does not allow them in the historic district.