Empowering Communities, Advocating Solutions
Campaigns:

CCE IN THE NEWS

Source: Long Island Press

Suffolk County Septic Systems Polluting Water Supply

BY CHRISTOPHER TWAROWSKI, TIMOTHY BOLGER AND SPENCER RUMSEY

Posted: February 24, 2012
Originally Published: February 23, 2012

Kevin McAllister stands on the dock at Forge River Marina in Mastic and points south, across the cold waters, to the 3.2-mile long tributary’s mouth, where it empties into Moriches Bay.

The 52-year-old knows these waters well. He grew up nearby, crabbing and water-skiing here throughout his youth. McAllister shifts his sights, motioning to the Forge’s muddy banks, which quickly collapse into a densely packed wall of residential waterfront homes. A senior housing complex occupies the opposite side, replacing land that had been used for nearly 100 years as a duck farm.

For McAllister, of the Quogue-based nonprofit Peconic Baykeeper, this recent visit with two Press reporters is his equivalent of returning to the scene of a horrific crime that changed the course of his work. He recalls the discovery he made here in June 2005 while on a boat tour of the river with two other reporters.

“All of a sudden I started seeing kind of a chalky color to the water,” he says. “It was chalky white, just didn’t look right. So I got deeper in and then all of a sudden you can smell some odors… We started to see the dead fish on the surface. Then up and around this area there was actually eels—you could see them, little juvenile eels, American eel—popping up to the surface, like snorkels.

“What the fish were trying to do, plus the crabs, they were scurrying out—there were blue crab up on the banks, on both sides, trying to get out of the water—because there was no oxygen,” continues McAllister. “It was going to kill them if they stayed in, and for that matter, they weren’t going to survive anyway, coming out.”

The scene bore the classic symptoms of chronic algal bloom, explains McAllister—rapid outbreaks of microscopic algae that deplete the host water body of oxygen, decimate marine life, and in some species, produce toxins lethal to humans. According to environmental experts, such explosions are triggered by excessive nitrogen, in the form of nitrates. A major source of those high levels of nitrogen, they say, is the human waste continuously discharged into Long Island’s groundwater through septic tanks and cesspool systems, eventually joining the surface water. By “groundwater,” they mean the underground aquifers Long Island’s 2.8 million residents uniquely live atop and shower, wash and drink from.

Yes, Suffolk County residents are drinking the same water they flush their toilets into.

The Forge River is not the only casualty. Its fate is representative of the ongoing deterioration and demise of not only LI’s drinking water supply, but dozens of other water bodies across both Nassau and Suffolk.

Most alarming to many environmentalists and scientists interviewed for this story were the findings of a more than 400-page draft of the soon-to-be-released final Suffolk County Comprehensive Water Resources Management Plan, the culmination of years of analysis by the county’s Department of Health Services, Planning Department, Department of Public Works and Water Authority, along with consultants and more than three dozen engineers and water quality specialists. Such a study had not been conducted since 1987.

Among its discoveries: Nitrogen concentrations are increasing exponentially in all three LI aquifers—the Lloyd, Upper Glacial and Magothy—rising 40 percent and 200 percent, respectively, in the latter two. Volatile organic compounds, pesticides and other contaminants are also increasing their presence in our drinking water supply, and new pollutants, such as pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs), have now also been detected.

Although each of these are cause for alarm and warrant immediate remedial actions and accountability in their own respect, the battle over nitrogen contamination is currently front and center in the ongoing water wars of Suffolk, where only slightly more than one-quarter of its 1.7 million population has the benefit of community-sewage disposal systems and thus, hundreds of thousands of residents utilize instead approximately 400,000 cesspools and septic tanks buried in their front or back yards for waste and wastewater disposal, providing a constant, daily supply of fresh contaminants for the drinking water supply.

“The same contaminants that affect drinking water can adversely affect surface waters,” a Suffolk health department spokesperson tells the Press. “However, the single-biggest regional problem is nitrogen inputs to surface waters from groundwater.”

EPA documents examined by the Press reveal that some privately run wastewater treatment systems in Suffolk had been repeatedly discharging nitrogen levels that exceeded the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s mandated standard for years. There currently exists no set plan to require the hundreds of thousands of antiquated cesspools and septic tanks buried throughout Suffolk to be upgraded or retrofitted to the best possible technology available. There also exists no singular, Island-wide regulatory agency charged with overseeing and actively enforcing the protection of LI’s drinking water.

Thus, the pollution and consequential contamination of the regional drinking water supply and its aesthetically and economically vital waterways continue to increase.

“The Forge River is the poster child for nutrient pollution from wastewater,” says McAllister. “Ultimately, this is just an example of what our waterways can be if we’re not managing for the wastewater influences.”

SHOCK TREATMENT

Suffolk’s wastewater dilemma has been flooding the consciousness of the county’s environmentalists, residents and elected officials in recent months.

On the table is a proposal from Legis. Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai) to speed up the county health department’s permit process for approving sewer and septic systems in new developments and help businesses track their applications during the process. New Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said in his campaign that the delays in the health department’s permit process are unconscionably slow, hindering the county’s economic growth and recovery.

Earlier this month, the Suffolk County Legislature created a committee to study expanding sewers in the county. Lawmakers also recently created an “infrastructure bank” designed to foster private-public partnerships to help fund such sewers. At some point this fall, county officials hope to hold a public referendum on either expanding Babylon’s Southwest Sewer District—currently the only area of the county fully sewered—or creating an entire new sewer district; sewers are seen by many as key for future development in Suffolk.

“The present grade of cesspools is one step better than an outhouse,” says Legis. Wayne Horsley (D-Babylon), who led the sewer committee’s formation. “If you want to have businesses that will bring in good paying jobs, you have to have the infrastructure to advance the county. And that basic infrastructure is sewering.”

Kick-starting much of the recent discussion has been the aforementioned draft Suffolk County Comprehensive Water Resources Management Plan, released last January—the final, revised version of which is due out by June, according to the health department—that paints a disturbing picture of the health and protection of LI’s drinking water supply and waterways.

Levels of Tetrachloroethene (PCE) in the drinking water supply, for example—recognized by the EPA as a carcinogen—have been increasing exponentially, “detected in four times as many wells in 2005 as in 1987,” it reads.

Trichloroethene (TCE), a degradation product of PCE, “was detected in more wells—and at higher average concentrations—in 2005 than in 1987.”

MTBE, or Methyl tert-butyl ether, a flammable, volatile, colorless gasoline additive, has been detected in Suffolk’s groundwater since 1991.

High-density development that occurred after World War II and eastern Suffolk’s long history of farming are two main culprits of nitrogen contamination, according to the report. Since many contaminants take years to travel from groundwater to surface waters, much of the destruction witnessed today began back then, though antiquated cesspool systems continue to contribute to that murky tradition.

“The biggest threats to drinking water are nitrogen, volatile organic compounds and pesticides,” Bellone tells the Press. “We agree that more work needs to be done to protect our aquifer, particularly with respect to nitrogen and surface waters.”

The draft plan “has got to be a wake-up call that the job is not being done to protect our drinking water and manage our waste water,” says Michael White, an environmental law attorney and the former executive director of the Long Island Regional Planning Council.

But as comprehensive as the latest report is, it still falls short, argue environmentalists.

“The data gets us to the 10-yard line, but it never kind of puts the ball into the end zone,” says Robert DeLuca, president of Southold-based nonprofit Group for the East End and also a former employee of Suffolk’s health department. “It essentially said, ‘Wow, look at all the stuff that’s happening, and we’ll keep doing the best we can.’”

DeLuca, McAllister, and half a dozen others co-published their gripes in an 18-page critical response to the report last August, titled Water Worries: Suffolk Report Documents Decline Without Prescription for Remedy. Their concerns were also submitted to the county health department during its public comment period, to be factored into potential remedial plans for its final report due in June.

Christopher Gobler, PhD, director of the Stony Brook-Southampton Coastal and Estuarine Research Program, also weighed in. He has worked extensively with the algal blooms infecting Northport Harbor, commonly known as red tide, which produces toxins that can be poisonous to humans.

“The levels of nitrogen have gone up and will continue to go up,” Gobler tells the Press. “The amount of nitrogen in the groundwaters is a function of the number of people living above the ground. And without a sewage treatment plant for almost all of eastern Suffolk County, every time you add another home with a septic tank and have people living in that home, you’re going to drive up the nitrogen loads. It’s all very predictable.”

Besides the foul smells and effects on the aesthetics of the Island’s bays and rivers, Gobler stresses the impact on the local economy.

“In 1980, two of three hard clams eaten east of the Mississippi River came from Great South Bay,” he writes. “Landings of hard clams and bay scallops have diminished 99 percent since this time, in part due to N[itrogen]-stimulated harmful algal blooms.”

Then there’s the health threats ingesting too much nitrogen from our drinking water poses: It deprives the blood of oxygen, explains Gobler, and can cause “Blue Baby Syndrome” in infants, whereby the child’s skin literally turns blue.

Casting blame on any one agency or facility for accountability, however, is tough. When it comes to exactly who is responsible for protecting Long Island’s drinking water, it gets complicated.

“There’s multiple agencies at multiple levels that currently have some piece of this responsibility, and I think that’s the challenge,” says DeLuca. “The Suffolk County Health Department has a responsibility for the protection of drinking water and the sanitary waste disposal systems that are in the ground right now. The state Department of Environmental Conservation is responsible for the protection of surface waters and wetlands. They have their own sets of rules and regulations. The local towns and villages, many of them have their own ordinances, planning and zoning. So you have probably a half dozen agencies all with a foot in the pool here.”

Richard Amper, executive director of Riverhead-based nonprofit Long Island Pine Barrens Society, an oft-outspoken environmental advocate, put it more bluntly:

“If there were a single somebody in charge of groundwater quality on Long Island, you’d go to them and take them out behind the barn and shoot them in the head,” he blasts. “Surface water is the DEC. They will tell you they’re understaffed. If it’s drinking water, it’s Suffolk County Department of Health Services. And they’re understaffed and they’re not processing development applications as fast as the government wants them to.

“Whatever level of government that you’re talking about, everyone’s falling down on the job—collectively, and all at the same time—and the consequences are catastrophic,” he adds.

Amper is part of a growing number of local environmentalists calling for the creation of a singular agency or commission that would oversee all of the Island’s drinking water resources. Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Farmingdale-based nonprofit Citizens Campaign for the Environment, is another. And she stresses that whatever form this new body is, it’s got to have teeth.

“We don’t want a paper tiger,” she says. “We want an entity that has the force of law.”


One role for this theoretical commission, she says, would be monitoring and enforcing the wastewater discharge standards of sewage treatment plants and onsite wastewater treatment systems and their pollutant infusions into the drinking water supply.

Currently 10 milligrams per liter of wastewater discharge for nitrogen is a standard that McAllister wants changed to 5 milligrams, since, he argues, the threshold was created to address health concerns with drinking water, not surface water quality. Long Island’s water bodies begin to deteriorate due to nitrogen pollution at 0.5 milligrams per liter, he says, thus the higher the requirements for nitrogen discharges, the better the health of the bays and estuaries.

FLUSHED

The vast majority of wastewater disposal systems in Suffolk are merely the basic cesspool system, which, in many cases, is just a ring of concrete cinder blocks forming an underground waste pit. But since 1997 another system has been used for larger, multi-family dwellings and commercial properties.

Manufactured by Williamsport, Penn.-based Cromaglass Corporation, the company’s wastewater treatment systems have been installed across the globe, from Baghdad to Lake Tahoe, for nearly 50 years. They are, in essence, onsite, mini-sewage treatment facilities, also known as “package” treatment plants, that typically handle flows ranging from 1,000 to 15,000 gallons of wastewater per day, or the equivalent of three to 50 full-sized single-family residences.

Cromaglass technology helped open parts of unsewered Suffolk to development, providing prospective builders with a solution for large-dwelling construction projects that could not otherwise meet the EPA’s nitrogen removal requirements and effluent standards.

There are between 32 and 40 such systems now in use throughout Suffolk, according to the health department and the company, respectively. They service about 2,000 residents of senior living facilities, hotels, aprtment and condominium complexes, says the company.

Until December 2011, Cromaglass was the only such system permitted for new developments. Now, Boston, Mass.-based Lombardo Associates’ Nitrex and Walton, Ken.-based Purestream’s BESST (Biological Engineered Single Sludge Treatment) systems can also be used.

An ongoing study by the county health department that will include an assessment of operation and cost-benefit analysis, to be completed next month, may open the door to other systems as well, and in addition, will evaluate whether any approved systems are appropriate for single-family homes.

The Nitrex system, touts the health department, has the capability of reducing nitrogen to the range of 2 to 3 milligrams per liter of wastewater discharged, a figure not lost on McAllister, who for years has been calling for more choices, better technology and demanding higher-grade effluent.

McAllister wants lawmakers and the county health department to de-certify Cromaglass, devise protocol for it and other onsite septic-cesspool systems’ replacement—possibly as incentives or at time of property transfer—and mandate all new developments to solely use the most efficient systems.

McAllister bases his demands on EPA discharge monitoring reports he obtained through a Freedom of Information Law request that shows, out of 27 Cromaglass systems installed in Suffolk, for 2008, 2009 and 2010, “Two out of every three were failing. Failing means they were not meeting the permit discharge standards, which is for drinking water protection,” he says.

The Press verified the documents through online, publicly accessible EPA databases.

“Why does Suffolk County still provide the ability to select from the list when there’s a significant disparity on performance?” he asks. “I’ll cut right to the chase: Nitrex, three parts. Cromaglass, two out of three can’t even get down to 10 parts. And some of these are through the roof—discharges of 40, 50 milligrams.”

Other environmentalists are equally critical of the Cromaglass system.

“They’re just not effective at all,” says Amper. “We need new technology; we need less density.”

Cromaglass’ Suffolk County representatives Lou Kircher and son Jeff, both self-described environmentalists themselves, defend the system, saying it is an effective, efficient process that provides an environmentally responsible alternative to cesspools and septic systems for future development in Suffolk. Although the systems aren’t 100 percent perfect, they say, they’re pretty close—as long as they’re properly maintained and operated.

“Operator neglect and owner indifference” are the biggest challenges to the system’s performance, says Jeff. “Every system is only as good as the operator.”

Jeff, whose background is in biochemistry and microbiology, explains that he and his father install the systems, but it’s up to the operators and property owners to maintain them. The Suffolk health department’s Office of Wastewater Management oversees and enforces Cromaglass and other sewage treatment plants’ compliance to nitrogen standards, confirms a health department spokesperson—with “enhanced (quarterly) inspection and monitoring, significant fines for violations, and requirements for reserve funding for upgrades.”

Jeff says the health department has historically lacked manpower, the inspectors were worn thin and overwhelmed. [According to the health department, three inspectors are responsible for all 193 sewage treatment plants, including Cromaglass, and 80 pump stations, in Suffolk.]

“The county is understaffed and has not been able to be diligent enough, but they have now become much more stringent in supervision of the plants,” Jeff says. “And in addition, Cromaglass, actually, has been contracted to do additional inspections.”

The Cromaglass system utilizes a complex process, and the EPA documents also show that the systems can achieve nitrogen discharges as low as 1, 2, 3 and 4 milligrams per liter.

In a nutshell: Post-flush, users’ waste and wastewater flow into a well before entering the Cromaglass system, where throughout a six-hour cycle that involves both aerobic and anaerobic bacteria treatment, aerobic bacteria break down the carbon and hydrogen from the wastewater, leaving nitrogen, and anaerobic bacteria consume the nitrogen. From there, the waste travels to a digester, where any suspended solids settle out. The remaining liquid, also called grey water, then flows into a sludge tank and is then released into leaching fields, where the treated effluent enters the ground.

In addition to all this, the system has odor vacuums to combat fumes or foul smells, and features complete redundancy—meaning that if one particular aspect of the process fails, others can back it up.

The Suffolk health department stands behind Cromaglass, too, telling the Press in a written statement regarding the EPA documents:

“While there were some startup problems in the initial Cromaglass systems, performance of these systems in Suffolk County is now very good,” says a spokeswoman. “These systems are operating better than other full-size wastewater treatment plants in Suffolk County, and have significantly reduced nitrogen loading to groundwater and surface waters as compared with the alternative of onsite septic tanks and leaching pools.”

Despite the high praises from the health department, however, some lawmakers aren’t fans.

Legis. Ed Romaine (R-Center Moriches) has “grave concerns” about the Cromaglass system, and suggests the health department irreversibly damaged relations with the legislature over the issue.

“I raised a ton of questions back in July, and they blew me off,” says Romaine, who suspects the health department has done an about-face and the report expected next month will show that the agency is now more critical of Cromaglass. “This is a department that gave us a great deal of difficulty in approving other systems.”

He believes that in addition to phasing out Cromaglass and the new push to sewer the county, there should also be incentives for homeowners with the worst polluting systems—pre-1972 cesspools—to replace their old systems with often cost-prohibitive, more advanced wastewater treatment alternatives. Yet it may already be too late, he says, when factoring in underground nitrogen and ammonia plumes oozing into the ground today that will not reach the bays and aquifers for 20 years or more.

“It’s sobering when you think about [it],” Romaine says. “This is a problem that may defy solution. Even if we make some solutions, even band-aid solutions, they may not protect the bays or the drinking water to allow both to be enjoyed a generation from now.”

DOWN THE DRAIN

Environmentalists direct special ire at Suffolk Legis. Tom Cilmi (R-Bay Shore), who after the draft report’s release, sponsored legislation that effectively stripped the county health department of implementing significant healthy policy changes without legislative approval. It passed nearly unanimously; former County Executive Steve Levy signed it into law.

Many environmental advocates allege the move was done preemptively to head off any potential policy changes that may be included in the revised final report—such as, for example, McAllister’s call for the de-certification and replacement of Cromaglass and antiquated cesspool and septic systems with the most efficient technology, such as Nitrex. Or perhaps improving the water quality nitrogen discharge standard from 10 milligrams per liter to 5 milligrams—mandates that would cost big money to implement. Critics charge that the motivation for such a law was less about protecting Long Island’s drinking water and ill-fated waterways and more about protecting deep-pocketed development interests and campaign contributors.

“The politicians are more concerned about protecting the special interests than the public health,” blasts Amper. “Within a month of the time that the health department’s report came out, the legislature, at the behest of developers, approved legislation that effectively says, ‘The health department is not allowed to do its job or promulgate any protective regulations unless we say so.’”

Motivated by outside interests or not, says DeLuca, the former health department employee, the new protocol just doesn’t make sense. He wants it repealed in tandem with the implementation of real, concrete plans on how to truly deal with the situation.

“It’s absurd, and I think it’s actually dangerous,” he says, “because what happens with legislation like that is that every public health decision becomes politicized. You don’t need 18 legislators trying to decide what’s good for public health. You need public health officials to decide that and, essentially, adopt rules and regulations that advance that.

“I think it’s very difficult for a public policy maker, who may not be a scientist and who may have absolutely no background or understanding as to what 10 milligrams per liter means—to sit there and basically pass judgment on some of the technical standards that are going to have to be put in place as we move forward,” DeLuca says. “There’s a reason why people [are] on the Board of Health and there are technical people involved in those health standards, because you need somebody with that level of competence—who is also not running for office—to be able to say with a straight face, ‘This is what we need to do and here’s why.’”

Cilmi tells the Press his legislation was “absolutely” influenced by the draft report and potentially expensive policy changes that could be coming from the health department down the road, stressing that it’s his job, as an elected official, to have a say in those decisions.

“My bill was in an effort to say, ‘Look, this report that was done is a very important report, it brings to light some very concerning facts about what’s going on with our environment, what’s going on with our waterways, what’s going on with our groundwater. But, when we’re going to make policy decisions based on those facts, that will have major impact not only on the future of our environment and public health, but also on the future of our economy, then those decisions are most appropriately made with counsel from all of the stakeholders, but made by the legislature.’

“I don’t want unelected administrative officials mandating anything,” he continues. “There are other implications to these decisions that need to be weighed along with everything.”

Regarding the allegations of campaign contributors’ influence:

“I won’t sit here and deny that I didn’t get phone calls from developers,” Cilmi says. “But you know what, in every decision that we make, we get phone calls from a myriad of stakeholders, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.”
McAllister, his environmental colleagues, and even the crafters of the county’s draft plan, argue that if the money is not spent on fixing the problem now, the cost will grow exponentially.

“Let’s say we’re doubling the cost, or even tripling the cost,” he says. “We’ve got to bite the bullet at some point, because we can’t continue to perpetuate the status quo because the status quo has brought us to a water quality crisis.

“Rome is burning.”