The nonprofit environmental organizations Save the Sound, Group for the East End, and Peconic Baykeeper have given notice to the Suffolk County Legislature that they believe its “failure to take meaningful action to address nitrogen pollution resulting primarily from outdated and inadequate septic systems violates the Green Amendment of New York’s Constitution.”
The Republican majority in the Suffolk County Legislature refused this summer to put public referenda onto this November’s ballot to create an eighth of a penny sales tax to fund new wastewater systems and to consolidate the county’s 27 sewer districts on July 25, as the Aug. 4 deadline to get the referenda on the November ballot looms.
The letter, prepared by PACE Environmental Litigation Clinic, was delivered via email to Presiding Officer Kevin McCaffrey on Tuesday and introduced during the public portion of a general meeting of the Legislature on Wednesday morning, Oct. 11.
The Green Amendment was adopted by 70 percent of New York voters in a November 2021 referendum. It states that “each person shall have a right to clean air and water, and a healthful environment.”
The Green Amendment does not specify what actions should be taken to ensure that right, only that action must be taken to prevent the degradation, diminution, or depletion of public natural resources such as clean water.
“Nitrogen from failing and inadequate septic systems in Suffolk County is violating New York’s Green Amendment guarantee of clean water and a healthy environment for Suffolk County residents both by contaminating drinking water and by causing low oxygen dead zones and dangerous algal blooms in surface water,” said Save the Sound Senior Legal Director Roger Reynolds. “The problem and solutions are well documented in the County’s own Subwatersheds Wastewater Plan. Moreover, the State Legislature recently passed a law allowing Suffolk County to raise money to fund the solution at minimal cost to individual County residents, yet the County Legislature is failing even to put the matter on the ballot to allow voters to decide – a necessary step toward implementation. The failure to take this incentive approach could leave banning traditional septics as the only solution. The wastewater district is a better approach from an environmental, social, and economic perspective and should be implemented immediately to protect Suffolk County residents’ Constitutional right to clean water and a healthy environment.”
Much of Suffolk County relies on individual on-site septic systems instead of sewers, and the nitrogen from urine in those systems has been shown to exacerbate toxic algae blooms, acting as a fertilizer when the nitrogen-rich groundwater reaches the island’s bays and estuaries, including the Peconic Estuary, the Great South Bay and the Long Island Sound. High levels of nitrogen in groundwater used for drinking water has also recently been linked to human health risks.
Suffolk County as a whole has been working for years to address this large-scale nitrogen problem. In 2015, the Long Island Nitrogen Action Plan was enacted by Suffolk County, Nassau County, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, and the Long Island Regional Planning Council. The stated priorities of this multi-year initiative include an assessment of nitrogen pollution in Long Island water and the development of an implementation plan to achieve reductions.
The Suffolk County Septic Improvement Program states that “nitrogen pollution from cesspools and septic systems has been identified as the largest single cause of degraded water quality contributing to beach closures, restrictions on shellfishing, toxic algae blooms, and massive fish kills.”
The Suffolk County Subwatersheds Wastewater Plan, adopted in 2020, asserts that “Suffolk County is pursuing proactive measures to reduce nitrogen pollution to the County’s surface waters and groundwater.”
Despite these stated goals, the Suffolk County Legislature has refused to allow the public to vote on funding septic improvement programs through the sales tax increase.
“After a decade of unprecedented effort, Suffolk County is finally ready to launch its most comprehensive wastewater management program in more than 40 years,” said Bob DeLuca, President of the Group for the East End, in an announcement of the notice given to the legislature. “Unfortunately, the legislature’s ongoing failure to let voters authorize and fund this critical program is now standing in the way of widely supported environmental progress, and violating every county resident’s established right to clean water and a healthy environment.”
“Peconic Baykeeper was founded on the principle that every resident of Suffolk County has the right to swimmable, drinkable, and fishable water,” said Pete Topping, executive director and Baykeeper at Peconic Baykeeper. “New York’s electorate echoed this sentiment when they voted to include the Green Amendment in the state’s Constitution, guaranteeing their right to clean water and a healthy environment. Despite the Suffolk County Legislature’s unanimous support for the Suffolk County Subwatersheds Wastewater Management Plan, which identifies nitrogen pollution from conventional septic systems as the largest threat to the region’s water quality, efforts to effectively fund this critical plan have been stalled by the Legislature’s inaction to allow the public to vote for the sustainable funding that this plan needs. In addition to allowing for the further degradation of our drinking water and aquatic ecosystems with each passing day, the county’s failure to act deprives the county’s residents of their constitutional right to clean water.”