Advocacy group pushes town to reduce nitrogen pollution

Kevin McAllister, founder of Defend H20, and Councilwoman Louisa Evans at Tuesday’s Town Board work session. (Credit: Cyndi Murray)
Kevin McAllister, founder of Defend H20, and Councilwoman Louisa Evans at Tuesday’s Town Board work session. (Credit: Cyndi Murray)

Wastewater management advocacy group Defend H2O is urging the Southold Town Board to follow in the footsteps of Brookhaven Town and adopt more stringent sewer discharge regulations.

Board members, however, say Brookhaven’s law may not be the solution for Southold. 

During Tuesday morning’s Town Board work session, Kevin McAllister, founder of Defend H2O and former Peconic Baykeeper, continued his push for East End towns to enact regulations similar to Brookhaven’s, which are aimed at reducing nitrogen pollution associated with sewer systems.

High nitrogen levels in area waters have been feeding harmful algal blooms — the red tide the area sees each summer — which in turn have damaged the local ecosystem by depriving water bodies of oxygen. As a result, area fisheries have suffered.

Supervisor Scott Russell said Mr. McAllister’s proposal “has merit,” but said the law wouldn’t address Southold Town’s primary source of nitrogen discharge: septic systems and cesspools serving single-family dwellings.

Under Brookhaven’s law, which passed in January, existing buildings within the Carmans River watershed have 10 years to replace or upgrade their systems to comply with stricter regulations — three parts per million of nitrogen for structures generating 1,000 to 3,000 gallons of flow per day — and require new businesses in the same watershed to install them upon construction, Mr. McAllister said.

Single-family homes average 350 to 500 gallons of flow per day, so they would not be affected by the stricter regulations, he said. Since Southold Town comprises mainly single-family dwellings, Mr. Russell said the town would need to research the proposal further before moving forward.

“The problem Southold has with nitrogen loading is: How do we retrofit a community of 11,000 houses?” Mr. Russell said after the meeting. “Southold’s real challenge isn’t new development, it is existing buildings. Basically what [Mr. McAllister] has proposed, which is a sound idea, would pertain in most instances to new development or construction.”

With development projects including a proposed senior living community called the Heritage at Cutchogue in the works, Mr. McAllister said any step the town takes to strengthen its septic discharge standards is a move in the right direction.

“Towns have the ability to change standards on a local level,” he said. “We should strive for the best available option of [septic] treatment.”

Board members said they hope to make strides by working with Suffolk County instead of enacting local laws that supersede current county regulations.

“The goal you have is absolutely stellar … but it’s about ‘How are you going to get there?’ ” said Councilman Bill Ruland. “We can use the big stick or everybody can work together and we can get this done.”

Mr. McAllister agreed to continue working with the Town Board and Suffolk County. Board members also directed town engineers to review the proposal, which will be readdressed at a later date.

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