Empowering Communities, Advocating Solutions


Source: Long Island Business News

Bellone: Clean-water plan boosts environment, economy


Posted: April 28, 2016
Originally Published: April 27, 2016

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone is proposing a water-use surcharge to create funds to help curb the nitrogen pollution triggered by antiquated septic systems and cesspools.

Bellone is calling for a referendum on whether county residents should pay a fee of $1 per 1,000 gallons of water used.

Officials said the fee would generate nearly $75 million in annual revenue, which by law, would be designated solely to reduce nitrogen pollution by connecting homes to active treatment systems.

“This question to protect water quality has to do with the future of this region,” Bellone said. “We cannot have a bright prosperous future without protecting our water quality. We’re asking the public to make an investment that allows us to make progress every year.”

Advocates say the plan would help both the environment and the business community. Clean water is key to Long Island’s $5 billion tourism industry, as well as the region’s $240 million agricultural industry, they say. And the upgrades would bring jobs and boost local manufacturing. Yet critics worry that the plan lacks a sunset clause. And still others say they need to hear more details.

But Bellone and his team of supporters, including elected officials and civic leaders, say it’s time to move forward. Otherwise, they say, the county’s 350,000 unsewered homes will continue to release nitrogen into ground and surface water. And that pollution, experts say, will continue to contaminate the region’s surface waters, leading to closure of shellfish beds, algal blooms, beach closures, and fish-kills.

“The environmental community has been studying this for many years,” Bellone said, “We can’t study this forever.”

Environmentalists agree.

“There’s been a 200 percent increase in nitrogen pollution in our groundwater over the last 15 years,” said Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, in Farmingdale. That pollution, she said, affects the region’s charter boats, lobster boats, recreational boating and more.

“These are large economic drivers – they’re suffering,” she added, as the “bays die.”

Marc Herbst, executive director of Long Island Contractors Association, said $60 million of the dollars generated from the surcharge would go towards construction, including for new sewers and cesspools as well as residential and commercial hookups.

“It will be a tremendous boost to the overall economy,” he said. “Every construction job creates a ripple effect of two additional jobs – architects, engineers, accountants, banks, restaurants and retailers.”

“If we don’t invest, we can’t expand – they can’t hook up to sewers and cesspools,” he added.

Along with other supporters, Herbst likes the plan because it is centered on Long Island. Nitrogen removal technology for septic systems and cesspool is being developed at the Center for Clean Water Technology at Stony Brook University. Local manufacturers are interested in building the new systems. And Long Island businesses would connect sites to the new systems.

“These are all Long Island based, family-owned businesses,” Herbst said. “The dollars don’t leave Long Island. The dollars stay here.”

Thomas Montalbine, president of Bay Shore-based Roman Stone Construction Company, said his firm is currently participating in a county pilot program with two locally manufactured treatment systems. “When the county finally approves these systems – hopefully by late summer – we expect that we will be able to sell up to 40 of these systems a month,” he said. “I will have to hire more people, buy more supplies and increase our manufacturing output.”

“When manufacturing does well, the whole economy does well,” Montalbine added. “Manufacturing jobs provide living wages with better benefits than most other jobs. Our employees will have more work, our suppliers will have more work, our truckers will have more work and we will have the added benefit of creating something that will help our environment.”

Knowing a water treatment system is in place would also help developers when looking at height and density – especially when planning for Long Island’s 55-plus community that wants to downsize, Desmond Ryan, executive director of the Association for a Better Long Island, said.

Advocates point out that while no one wants to outlay additional money, the plan might help save money and resources.

“Imposing a fee based upon the amount of water you use, that would encourage water conservation,” said Mitch Pally, CEO of Long Islanders Builders Institute. And, Esposito notes, residents are already spending money to treat local drinking water; they’d spend less once the nitrogen pollution is not a factor.

Still, buy-in from the public might not be easy, especially when residents already pay high taxes, and at a time when people are disenfranchised with the government.

Officials “will need to build up trust with the public,” Eric Alexander, director of Vision Long Island said. Residents will “need to see a list of the projects” and may need to “see the ledger” for clarification on proposed economic benefits. How the plan is presented to the public may make all the difference, Alexander noted, adding that the effort would benefit by a grassroots push that included local civic organizations, chambers of commerce and mayors.

Count the Long Island Farm Bureau as one organization that needs clarification. “Water issues are very important to the farming community,” Spokesman Robert Carpenter said, referring to their crops and drinking water.

The organization has been working on an agricultural stewardship plan to address the impact farmers have on water quality, he said. Still, the bureau wants more information on how the plan would pay for treatment, and the types of assessments the county would use.

“We need a few more details before we can comment on the proposal,” he said.

And while some are troubled about the lack of a sunset clause, others see it as a positive. As Herbst put it, referring to the contamination, “If the program runs out, then what?”

But doing nothing, supporters of Bellone’s plan say, is not the answer.

“It’s easy to criticize a plan,” said Esposito. “It’s not so easy to create a plan.”