County backs study of alternative waste systems in Orient

The sun rising over Orient Harbor in Orient. (Credit: Tim Kelly file photo)
The sun rising over Orient Harbor in Orient. (Credit: Tim Kelly file photo)

In a nod to the need for advancing how the county handles nitrogen pollution near its waterways, Suffolk County approved a measure last week that could eventually make Orient the first existing community in Suffolk to install small wastewater treatment facilities meant to clean up the local ecosystem.

The county decided to spend $60,000 to match payment for an engineering report that will further explore waste treatment options for homeowners in the area, after a preliminary study was completed for nonprofit Peconic Green Growth in December 2013 (READ THE STUDY HERE).

December’s study illustrated which sites in Orient — population, 743, according to 2010 census data — would be most suitable to hold subsurface wastewater facilities. Seven parcels, which would be able to process waste for 574 people, were considered for further study.

Lawmakers have said that the upgrades to locals’ wastewater systems — which currently are cesspools for the most part, largely considered ineffective because nitrogen eventually seeps from them into the local waters — could reduce nitrogen pollution by 50 to 90 percent.

Effects from nitrogen pollution include threats to drinking water — a priority since the area gets its potable water through wells — as well as harm to marine life in the area. The Peconic Bay as a whole has seen rust tide become an annual occurrence in late summer as nitrogen loads have increased, researchers have said.

Glynis Berry, executive director of Peconic Green Growth, said on Thursday that the funding from the county will allow the nonprofit to hone in not only on the particular kinds of facilities that would work best for Orient, but provide cost estimates for the work and lay out steps toward realizing the changes as well. Ms. Berry said that in order to make the idea a reality, a special management district will likely have to be formed in the area to oversee the facilities. Current regulations may need to be changed as well.

“You can’t ask someone to join something until you have a better of what it works like and what it costs,” she said.

Ms. Berry said that the study, to be completed by Columbia County-based Clark Engineering, will provide a schematic design — not a final one — to give the community some real options to tackle wastewater treatment moving forward.

“We are not an official body. So we’re not dictating anything,” she said. “We are just exploring options, and hoping the community will buy into them.”

Over the past year, momentum has been building in Orient to look at phasing out outdated cesspools in the hamlet. A survey by Peconic Green Growth stated that “cesspools will be priority systems for upgrade” upon finding out that at least 40 percent of the survey’s 192 respondents had a cesspool — and based on how old the homes in the area are, that number could be as high as 58 percent.

County Executive Steve Bellone has also recently made water quality improvement one of his administration’s top priorities. The county exec penned an opinion piece in a March edition of The Suffolk Times, saying that curbing nitrogen pollution would be the “single most important initiative of [his] administration.” He is currently seeking $750 million in state and federal funding for sewer projects across the county.

The announcement came in line with his ‘Reclaim Our Water’ initiative, an effort aimed at educating the public about the effects of nitrogen pollution on local waters. While targeting points west for sewer projects — 70 percent, or 360,000 homes in Suffolk, are not sewered — Orient offers an opportunity to serve as a test area for alternative waste treatment options.

Legislators at last week’s general meeting said they are anxious to see what lessons can be learned from studying the “clustering” of certain communities in Orient into smaller treatment facilities. And while there was some hesitation about where the county’s funding for the study is coming from — the county’s Drinking Water Protection Program — the body unanimously supported paying for its share of the research.

“Hopefully what’s learned out there in Orient can be applied to other areas as well,” said Legis. Kara Hahn (D-Setauket), chair of the environment, planning and agriculture committee. “Because we can not, nor do we want to, sewer Suffolk County in its entirety.”

Ms. Berry — who has written an opinion piece for The Suffolk Times as well on the negative effects of nitrogen — said that Peconic Green Growth has 15 months to complete the study.