East Hampton Town officials are beginning to practice what they have long preached when it comes to wastewater by installing modern wastewater systems at public restrooms and other town-owned sites. East Hampton was the first town in Suffolk County to require low-nitrogen septics in all new buildings. Since 2018, property owners could no longer install old-fashioned tanks and rings, which allowed human waste to seep into groundwater untreated.
It was high time — draining pee and poop into pits in the ground has been around for more than 4,000 years, dating back to the Indus Valley Civilization in present-day Pakistan. As is the case to this day, the cesspits had to be regularly cleared to remain functional. Witness the never-ending stream of pumpout trucks going back and forth on South Fork roads — it gives an idea of how overloaded the situation has become.
In addition to creating concerns about drinking water, the old-fashioned methods are a prime suspect in the declining health of bays and estuaries. Nitrogen is now thought to be the main cause of marine impairment, responsible for the collapse of a commercially viable scallop harvest, for example. Wastewater from houses, businesses — and public restrooms — is the specific culprit. But do the costly so-called innovative-alternative systems now mandated really make a difference? No one actually knows. The very limited before-and-after testing that has been done has not produced convincing results.
The real issue is in the numbers. Suffolk officials estimate that there are more than 250,000 houses in the county served by cesspools alone. Enforcement of a nearly 20-year-old federal order requiring the removal of existing commercial cesspools has been all but ignored. In East Hampton, more than half of houses and businesses — an estimated 12,000-plus — are still using antiquated cesspools. Shockingly, given the Environmental Protection Agency ban, according to an official count there are as many as 100 cesspools serving businesses in East Hampton Town alone — many in ecologically sensitive areas.
In 2019, voters in most of the East End towns that have community preservation funds voted in favor of allowing up to 20 percent of the annual 2-percent tax income to be used on water quality initiatives. Some of that money has gone to pay for grants to homeowners to help cover the cost to replace old in-ground tanks with low-nitrogen hardware. The results have been piecemeal, however, and the towns and county are still struggling to get problem-prone systems out of environmentally challenged areas.
In East Hampton, town officials have only now begun spending money on low-nitrogen septic tech. They have already gone in in Montauk, Amagansett, and Wainscott; upcoming installations include one in Springs, another at Maidstone Park, and one at South Lake Drive in Montauk, where swimming has been banned for many years. Seeing the town get in on the action may help encourage reluctant homeowners.
Another part of the problem is the byzantine requirements facing a homeowner who would like to take advantage of the several programs. There is a county program, one run by the state, and several of the towns have their own. Individual property owners’ concerns about the ongoing maintenance costs for the new systems is another impediment. If officials want to increase uptake, reducing the paperwork nightmare is one place to start. Demonstrating that the mandate actually has a positive environmental effect is another.