Suffolk County executive Steve Bellone signed historic legislation on Thursday, Oct. 15, to require the use of nitrogen-reducing wastewater technologies in unsewered areas of the county for all new construction. It also allows greater flexibility for the use of small sewer plants in downtown business districts.
“What this legislation means today is that we are continuing to make good on our commitment and our promise that we are going to protect and preserve water quality in Suffolk County because it means everything to us,” Bellone said in front of Lake Ronkonkoma during a press conference last week.
Others speaking at the press conference referenced Bellone’s listed No. 1 priority since he took office: a commitment to restoring water quality, drinking water quality, and coastal ecosystems. Bellone praised the advancements in technology and the work accomplished by the septic industry.
“We said that nitrogen was public enemy No. 1. This industry: this was all old technology that we were utilizing, and there were pioneers who stepped forward and businesses that stepped forward,” Bellone said. “Without the industry in place, you cannot snap your fingers or turn on a switch and all of a sudden have the infrastructure necessary to reverse decades of damage that had occurred. There had to be an infrastructure and an ecosystem built in order to make it work, and that was that industry’s system.”
Dr. Chris Gobler, the chair of coastal ecology and conservation at School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences director for the New York State Center for Clean Water Technology, said that this legislation is a game changer for Suffolk County.
“The story of Suffolk County and water and the coastal environments is one that you could start as saying went from first to worst,” said Gobler, referencing the clam and scallop fisheries in the 1980s being the largest on the East Coast. “From that point forward, Suffolk County witnessed the collapse of both of those fisheries to the point where the landings dropped to less than 1 percent of what they were in the 1980s. We saw the nitrogen levels increase by up to 200 percent from that period to today due to on-site septic systems.”
Gobler said that the Bellone administration and its commitment to water quality was a turning point in the county.
“When it comes to advanced treatment of wastewater, which we knew caused all these collapses, Suffolk County went from worst to first,” Gobler said. “We are looking all across the country and around the globe at what people are doing when it comes to treating on-site wastewater. I can say with confidence that today there is no better program for installing advanced septic systems anywhere in the country than there is here in Suffolk County. They knew it was a monumental task. They took it slow. They did it right. The program has been enormously successful.”
Gobler also referenced the 380,000 unsewered homes in the county. And Kevin McDonald of the Nature Conservancy said that the action of replacing the old with new, individual/advanced wastewater treatment systems will remove roughly 20,000 pounds of nitrogen every year out of the environment in a compounding way. This means that the following year would see twice the removal due to the additional installations that year.
“This is a significant, monumental event in Suffolk County’s environmental history,” McDonald said. “This is a dramatic improvement over Roman technology.”
Kevin McAllister, president of Defend H20, said that the growing effects of wastewater treatment that is used today in Suffolk County as well as the influences due to climate change severely threaten water quality on Long Island. He also referenced water quality as a priority issue in the county and the region, and congratulated Bellone and the Suffolk County Legislature for their efforts, considering a unanimous yes vote on the bill.
“Today, we celebrate meaningful progress towards that goal with the adoption of progressive sanitary amendments,” McAllister said. “The Suffolk Legislature is commended for demonstrating its commitment, and in particular executive Steve Bellone for instituting an effective, forward-looking program that delivers.”
Mitch Pally, CEO of the Long Island Builders Institute, pointed out how the legislation opens the door for development.
“This is going to be a game changer for the development community in Suffolk County,” he said. “The ability to use the Appendix A systems in larger, mid-sized development projects, to help renovate our downtowns, to help renovate our other areas where development is appropriate is going to be a significant ability to build this type of housing.”