Suffolk County Water Authority customers hit with new quarterly cleanup fee

North Fork residents in the Suffolk County Water Authority’s jurisdiction will see an extra $20 quarterly fee on their bills beginning this year to offset the cost of contaminant cleanup, SCWA officials said.

The surcharge, approved in November 2019, will help pay for 56 new advanced oxidation process treatment systems, or AOPs, and 20 granular activated carbon systems, which will help remove the contaminants 1,4-dioxane, PFOS and PFOA from the water, according to an SCWA press release.

All three compounds have been detected in drinking water systems across the country, yet they remain unregulated by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

However, the New York State Department of Health is expected to adopt the nation’s most protective maximum contaminant levels, or MCLs, for the contaminants, as per a December 2018 suggestion from the New York State Drinking Water Quality Council. That recommendation prompted SCWA to approve the surcharge, chief executive officer Jeffrey Szabo confirmed Friday.

“We suspect it will be adopted in the first quarter of 2020,” he said. “The topic of setting MCLs for the three compounds has been discussed and debated for a couple of years now … it’s not coming as a surprise, and we have been prepared for these levels for quite a while now.”

The cost of installing and operating the new systems is expected to exceed $177,000,000 over the next five to six years.

Mr. Szabo said SCWA has applied for upwards of 20 grants collectively worth several million dollars to offset the cost and keep customers’ bills down, but the surcharge needs to be imposed to ensure that all state guidelines are met in the future. 

“We are as upset as the customers,” he said. “We are doing everything we can to mitigate the cost, but until we have additional state funding … we have to have this be in place in order to have treatment up and running.” 

Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell said the costs should not fall on the backs of SCWA ratepayers.

“These costs should be recoverable from the parties and agents that were responsible for the contamination to begin with,” Mr. Russell said in an email Monday. “Further, companies that rely on the use of, or who produce, these toxins are subject to review by federal and state regulatory agencies. If the costs are not recoverable by any of the culprits, then federal and state regulators should pick up the tab for not doing their job.”

Southold Town Trustee Nick Krupski, a water engineer at Brookhaven National Laboratory and co-owner of Krupski Farms in Peconic, said rising bills are difficult for residents to grapple with, but emerging contaminants need to be addressed. The former SCWA field operator also said that the cost of equipment to remove contaminants, specifically carbon filters, is running high.

“Realistically, with all these emerging contaminants, it’s getting harder and harder to produce a clean water source out of the ground in Suffolk County,” Mr. Krupski said.

Though treatment has not yet been mandated, SCWA chairman Patrick Halpin said Friday that the authority has been testing water for 1,4-dioxane since 2003 and for PFOS and PFOA since 2013.

SCWA, which serves approximately 1.2 million Suffolk County residents, also developed the first AOP treatment system for 1,4-dioxane.