Environmentalists rallied in Albany last week to support a bill that would establish and implement a water quality protection plan aimed at reducing nitrogen levels in ground and surface waters across Long Island.
One major component of the legislation would require all septic systems near coastlines or public water sources to be replaced by more high-tech nitrogen-reducing systems. But that part of the bill is generating skepticism tied to a lack of tested technology and to the potential costs for governments and property owners alike.
Richard Amper, executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, said the legislation, if enacted, could “make the largest contribution to Long Island’s environment of any piece of legislation ever written.”
But it’s still early in the process.
State lawmakers refer to the measure, which is still in committee, as a “study bill,” calling it simply a starting point for discussion.
Assemblyman Robert Sweeney (D- Lindenhurst) proposed the legislation in August, with state Senator Kenneth LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) proposing a matching bill in the Senate soon after. They caution that the bill needs more work, but both hope to get it passed during this legislative session and said a final draft is expected in April.
The bill aims to curb the amount of nitrogen — which comes from human and animal waste, fertilizers and other sources — reaching area bays and Long Island Sound, feeding algal booms that deprive waters of their oxygen.
It also calls for creation of a Long Island Water Quality Commission that would establish and then oversee implementation of an island-wide water protection plan.
As proposed, the 11-member commission would include two representatives from the governor’s office, one representative each from the Senate and the Assembly, both county executives, one representative from each county legislature and a single member representing all Long Island town and village governments.
It would also include a technical advisory member to represent county health and planning departments and a citizen’s advisory representative such as an environmental or industry advocate. With a protection plan in place, local governments would have to adopt and amend land use, zoning and engineering specifications to adhere to the plan, according to the bill.
Suffolk County Legislator Al Krupski (D-Cutchogue), whose district spans the North Fork, and Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter each flagged that component of the proposal as something that wrests zoning control from local officials.
They also said such a commission would direct too much power away from elected leaders.
“It would kind of give the state zoning authority,” Mr. Krupski said. “You need to have elected officials on [the commission] really, being that they are the ones on the front lines making decisions based on someone having elected them to that positions.”
“What they are asking us to do is abdicate our zoning authority, give 100 percent of our zoning authority to what is mostly an unelected group of individuals,” Mr. Walter said. “I could not support the legislation as it is written.”
Mr. Walter said while he is in favor of a plan to improve water quality, he believes affected towns should be broadly represented. That’s the case with the five-member Central Pine Barrens Commission, which includes the supervisors of Brookhaven, Riverhead and Southampton, as well as the county executive.
The water protection plan would affect too many people on Long Island and they need proper representation, he said.
Mr. LaValle, who wrote and sponsored the Long Island Pine Barrens Protection Act, said state officials are taking those concerns into consideration and plan to invite local government officials to the table to voice their concerns.
“My approach is to be inclusive and to make sure that people’s points of view are represented,” Mr. LaValle said. “Everyone can’t get everything they want, but it should represent the stakeholders’ major concerns.”
As for curbing nitrogen flow into water, the bill calls for the removal of existing commercial and residential septic systems, which would be replaced by nitrogen-reducing systems. The mandate would apply to all such “on-site” septic systems within 1,000 feet of a coastline or public supply well.
“We have 17 [public] supply wells in Riverhead and we’re surrounded by water,” Mr. Walter said, “Thousands of homeowners could be impacted.”
Currently, conventional underground on-site septic systems release nitrates into groundwater at a rate of 35 to 50 milligrams per liter, said Bob DeLuca of Group for the East End, an environmental advocacy group working with lawmakers on the bill. The county health department’s standard for drinking water is 10 milligrams per liter and, according to Christopher Gobler, marine researcher for Stony Brook University, aquatic life is affected by levels of 0.5 milligrams per liter or higher.
Any new nitrogen-reducing system would have to reduce that output by half, Mr. DeLuca said, keeping in line with the National Sanitary Foundation’s standard, which “speaks to a 50 percent reduction.” The nonprofit foundation develops public health standards that help protect the world’s water; and certifies that emerging de-nitrifying systems and technology meet those specific standards, according to its website.
“It is not a bill that says everybody in Suffolk County has to rip up their backyards and put in a system next week,” said Mr. DeLuca. “There are places where they will need advanced nitrogen treatment and where they will not.”
Mr. DeLuca, Mr. Amper and other environmentalists traveled to Albany last Tuesday hoping to gain support for the bill — which the two state lawmakers stressed could look very different in its final draft, given all the concerns.
Engineering experts argue that the proposed legislation is not in line with available sewage treatment technology, as no de-nitrification system is currently approved by the Suffolk County health department for use on a consumer level.
“There’s no technology to do what they are asking for,” said professional engineer Joseph Fischetti of Southold. “The problem all comes down to individual sub-surface sanitation and there is nothing out here that takes nitrogen out of individual sub-surface sewer systems. So we’re not there yet.”
Mr. DeLuca said health department engineers are currently testing available technology and are in the process of studying at least three systems.
Mr. Fischetti also spoke to the cost of such systems, which he said can range from $10,000 to $30,000 and higher. Such systems, he said, would require long-term maintenance, some seasonally, which would add to those costs.
“This a very complicated problem and they’re going to put legislation out there that’s going to be costing people tens of thousands of dollars,” Mr. Fischetti said. “It affects almost everybody; look at a map and draw a line 1,000 feet from the coast. You have to start talking about how much this is going to cost.”
Mr. Sweeney said the protection plan would incorporate identifiable means of paying for all the septic system upgrades, without putting all of the cost on ratepayers or property owners.
“We recognize it simply isn’t realistic to turn to homeowners and say, ‘This is all your problem and now you have to fix it at your expense,’ I don’t think that could happen, much less that it would happen,” Mr. Sweeney said.
Mr. Krupski, a former member of Southold Town’s Board of Trustees, which is tasked with protecting the town’s water sources, applauded the effort to move forward on improving water quality.
But, he added, the bill as proposed seemed to outline quite an expensive endeavor for no guaranteed payoff.
“Who is going to do the work? And who going to pay for it?” Mr. Krupski asked, adding that nitrogen is not the only factor in water degradation. “Look at everything that goes down the drain. You don’t want to put all your eggs in one basket and then say nitrogen was just one player with everything going into groundwater.”
“Everybody is interested in how this affects them, that’s natural,” Mr. Sweeney said. “We’re having those discussions and we could end up, who knows, in a very different place down the road from where we are right now on this issue.
“The main point was to get a discussion going and figure out what can reasonably be done,” he said, “and what we need to do to address the issue.”