Town and County Target Wastewater Pollution

Water quality and environmental well-being are taking top billing these days. Along with East Hampton Town, Suffolk is taking steps to reduce the amount of nitrogen and other pollutants in household wastewater. Homeowners have been invited to sign up for as much as $21,000 in county loans and grants to install low-pollution treatment systems, while the town is working on a rebate program that would provide funds for up to 100 percent of the cost of cesspool replacement in vulnerable watershed areas using money from the community preservation fund.

Meanwhile, East Hampton Town Republicans have weighed in, presenting a plan of their own that calls for inspections of private waste systems by a new town employee and the creation of a database of systems in need of upgrades. For this, they suggest state and/or federal money could be used rather than the preservation fund.

Suffolk’s program will provide money for the replacement of up to 400 outdated, failed, or poorly designed systems. Up to $11,000 in an outright grant will be available per eligible applicant, with additional money available as an optional 15-year loan at 3 percent interest. This is notable given that single-family wastewater systems can cost between $15,000 and $17,000, according to latest estimates. Participation will be by application, with a starting date of July 1. Details about how to sign up have not been finalized.

Response from the environmental community to the town and county initiatives has been warm, but an undercurrent of concern remains. Suffolk is estimated to have at least 360,000 residential cesspools or other systems that do not adequately reduce the risk of contaminants entering waterways and drinking water. Neither Suffolk’s 400-property program nor the town’s rebates deal with the massive scale of the problem.

It should be remembered that both plans target only residential waste, ignoring equally significant sources of pollution from commercial properties. Kevin McAllister, the founder of Defend H2O, has said that quite a few businesses in eastern Suffolk appear to be in violation of the federal 1996 Safe Drinking Water Act, which called for them all to be replaced by now. Many of the sites in East Hampton where questions about this have been raised drain toward Lake Montauk.

To truly be effective, the town’s and county’s efforts must expand to include businesses. At the same time, long-term thinking must be given to centralized sewage treatment for the most vulnerable areas.

Suffolk’s failed and failing septic systems are thought to outnumber those in the entire State of New Jersey. Need we say more?