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Aging septic systems have been wreaking havoc on the East End.

When environmental advocate Kevin McAllister went to the East Hampton Town Board in mid-January to share his ongoing pitch that East End towns regulate septic systems, he seemed visibly surprised that Town Supervisor Larry Cantwell had entertained his proposal.

After all, Mr. McAllister’s pleas for towns to exercise local control over septic systems, which are regulated by the the Suffolk County Health Department, have been falling on deaf ears out here for years.

But that changed this week, when the East Hampton Town Board unveiled its first draft of a law, drafted in response to Mr. McAllister’s query, that would require advanced nitrogen-reducing septic systems for new construction projects and septic system upgrades to existing construction whose estimated septic flow is between 1,000 and 30,000 gallons per day.

These new requirements would apply to projects within the town’s Harbor Protection Overlay Districts, which are outlined in East Hampton’s Local Waterfront Revitalization Plan, and include many areas where waterside restaurants abound.

A public hearing is expected to be scheduled Thursday night for the town board’s April 7 meeting.

While many East End town boards have balked at the legal precedent they may set by superseding the county health department’s requirements, Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine initiated similar stringent septic requirements in the Carmans River watershed last February.

“Brookhaven has had success with this program in their Carmans River watershed area,” said East Hampton Town Attorney Michael Sendlenski when he gave an overview of the bill at the board’s March 15 work session. “It provides for enhanced protections, especially in the most critical areas.”

If the law is adopted, East Hampton would require “best available technology” to be used to reduce nitrogen in the effluent to 3 parts per million, on average, over the course of 12 months. Nitrogen levels must not exceed 5 parts per million in any one month, said Mr. Sendlenski.

East Hampton’s Harbor Protection Overlay District includes lands near  the town’s major harbors, creeks and ponds, including Accabonac Creek, Fort Pond (including the arm of Fort Pond north of Industrial Road), Georgica Pond, Great Pond (Lake Montauk), Hog Creek, Napeague Harbor, Northwest Creek, Northwest Harbor, Steppingstones Pond, Three Mile Harbor, Tuthill Pond and Wainscott Pond, according to the town code.

“We should be employing the best available technology, especially in areas of the least travel time,” said Councilman Peter Van Scoyoc at Tuesday’s work session. “It is an important first step in the continuing efforts to protect our local waters.”

“I think this is the beginning of the process,” agreed Town Supervisor Larry Cantwell. “It’s pretty clear to all of us that nitrogen loading in groundwater seeping into the bays is reaching a crisis. I think we’re fortunate here in East Hampton that we haven’t been as impacted as many other parts of Suffolk County. The unfortunate part is it’s coming and we’ve seen the evidence of it.”

Mr. Cantwell pointed out that, just last year, the town had faced toxic algal blooms, which are fed by excess nitrogen from septic systems, in Wainscott Pond, Georgica Pond, Hook Pond, Fort Pond and in hot spots in the south end of Lake Montauk, the north end of Accabonac Harbor and the south end of Three Mile Harbor.

“We’re going to have to step up,” he said. “This is the beginning, really, of the kind of regulation that’s going to be required to upgrade our waste systems.”


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 editor@eastendbeacon.com

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