County Executive Steve Bellone | courtesy photo
County Executive Steve Bellone | courtesy photo

There were a lot of up island issues on County Executive Steve Bellone’s agenda in his state of the county address last night, but the bulk of his talk had real implications for East Enders: The nitrogen pollution in the county’s ground and surface waters.

After a summer that saw a record number of harmful algae blooms in Long Island bays, Mr. Bellone denounced the culprit: nitrogen, which is leaching primarily from failing septic systems surrounding the bays, wreaking havoc in the ecosystem of our coastlines.

“For the health of our region today and the sake of future generations, we must address this water quality crisis,” he said. “Nitrogen is public water enemy number one.”

Mr. Bellone said about 360,000 homes in Suffolk County are not hooked up to sewer systems.

“We have a million-and-a-half people unsewered,” he said. “This is probably the only place in world with that large a density where the waste is going into a sole source aquifer immediately beneath us that we are drinking.”

Mr. Bellone said water quality experts have told him that if the county can hook up 200,000 individual septic systems to either sewers or small scale denitrification systems, it “will solve our water quality crisis.”

But to date, the county health department has been slow to approve alternate septic systems. Mr. Bellone said there are 17 different types of small scale denitrification systems available around the country that can halve the amount of nitrogen leaching from cesspools.

“The bad news is there are no approved single home treatment systems in Suffolk County,” he said. “I’ve directed the Suffolk County Department of Health Services to give manufacturers throughout the nation the ability to bring them to Suffolk County so we can approve them this year.”

“With more than 360,000 unsewered homes, we are the largest single market for improved wastewater systems in the country,” he said. “This is a year of action for our water….The fact that this will take decades to solve has been a convenient excuse for inaction for too long.”

Mr. Bellone also pointed out that nitrogen weakens the root structure of grasses in salt meadows along the bays, causing the meadows to disintegrate and making Long Island’s coastlines more vulnerable to storms.

“Pollution has eroded our coastal defenses,” he said. “Tidal wetlands play a critical role in slowing waves.”

Mr. Bellone said this year he expects the county to begin a “household by household” survey to determine the best method of denitrification for all neighborhoods in the county.

“The response to this crisis must be comprehensive,” he said, adding that he plans to unroll the largest expansion of public septic infrastructure in the county’s history, which could cost billions of dollars.

He made no mention of how that expansion would be financed.

“In everything we do in this area, we must be united,” he said. “We live together on one island. We all benefit from a healthy Great South Bay. We all benefit from a healthy Peconic Bay.”

Beth Young
Beth Young is an award-winning local journalist who has been covering the East End since the 1990s. She began her career at the Sag Harbor Express and, after receiving her Masters from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, has reported for the Southampton Press, the East Hampton Press and the Times/Review Media Group. She founded the East End Beacon website in 2013, and a print edition in 2017. Beth was born and raised on the North Fork. In her spare time, she tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at

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