The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is helping Suffolk County evaluate the health impacts of several proposed changes to the county’s septic code that could have a serious impact on East End homeowners.
The county is considering three possible changes that could impact some or all of the owners of more than 350,000 cesspools in Suffolk County, in light of increasing nitrogen in bays and drinking water wells that is linked in many places to the nitrogen in urine that passes through those septic systems.
The county is evaluating the possibility of requiring all homeowners to upgrade their cesspools to current standards (currently, upgrades to existing homes are only required when homeowners undertake an expansion in the number of bedrooms in their homes).
They are also evaluating the possibility of either requiring homeowners whose cesspool effluent will reach groundwater in 50 years or surface waters within 25 years to either upgrade to current standards or to install new, expensive onsite treatment systems.
They are also examining the possibility that nothing will be done to change the septic code.
Representatives from the EPA discussed their assessment, paid for through a partnership with FEMA to develop resilient infrastructure on Long Island after Superstorm Sandy, at a forum at the Suffolk County Community College Culinary Arts building in downtown Riverhead March 4.
A handful of planners, environmental advocates and government officials attended the forum, lead by EPA Sustainable and Healthy Communities Research Program administrator Florence Fulk and consultant Lauren Adkins from CSS-Dynamac.
They said the Health Impact Assessment uses World Health Organization standards to evaluate the effect the changes could have on the physical, mental and social well-being on Long Islanders, as well as the effect on the environment and economy.
The meeting was one of three scheduled last week on Long Island by the Ohio-based EPA representatives. Other meetings were also scheduled in Brentwood and Cold Spring Harbor.
“We’re not advocating for or against the policy. We’re advocating for health,” said Ms. Adkins.
Ms. Fulk said the Health Impact Assessment is not required if Suffolk County wants to change the septic code, but it will give the county a better idea of how to best implement any changes. Community groups can also band together to perform Health Impact Assessments, which do not have to be done by the federal government.
“Most of them are done at the community level,” said Ms. Adkins. “We are looking at what it would mean for a federal agency to incorporate an HIA.”
County Legislator Al Krupski, who represents the North Fork, pointed out that the EPA could gain much by partnering with towns, which have more recent information on surface water pollution at their disposal than the information presented by the EPA that evening.
Julie Hargrave of the Central Pine Barrens Commission questioned why little is being done about sewage treatment plants that routinely release effluent over the standard instead of the focus on individual homeowners with cesspools.
She pointed to recent code requirements that builders mitigate disturbance to the pine barrens, which are not retroactive, as an example of a major code change.
“We can’t say every homeowner has to revegitate back to the way the pine barrens was,” she said. “There would be revolution. A retroactive law? Can you think of an example of another one?”
Southampton Town planners Janice Sherer and Claire Vail were also skeptical of the proposed changes.
Ms. Sherer pointed out that many people have unconformities on their properties now, many of which predate the code, which they may be afraid will come under scrutiny if the septic code changes.
“This is just going to cause a major uprising,” she said.
Ms. Vail added that any changes should be site-specific. For example, she said, a five-acre property on the headlands of the moraine, far from the water, contributes far less to the problem than houses on undersized lots close to the water.
She added that she wasn’t sure why protection of surface waters seemed to be the focus of the county’s efforts, when drinking water is also being contaminated by excess nitrogen.
Attendees were also concerned about the effect the proposal would have on homeowners who can’t afford septic upgrades.
“SEQRA has an environmental justice component,” said Ms. Hargrave, referring to the State Environmental Quality Review Act. “Will the assessment look into that?”
“Yes. Absolutely,” said Ms. Fulk.
The EPA is still seeking community input on the changes, and anyone interested in joining the discussion can email Ms. Fulk at firstname.lastname@example.org or Ms. Adkins at email@example.com.
“Suffolk County originally planned to make a decision by the end of May, but they may extend that,” said Ms. Adkins.