Suffolk to Require Nitrogen-Reducing Septic Systems for New Construction

Pictured Above: Citizens Campaign for the Environment Executive Director Adrienne Esposito, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone and Suffolk County Legislator Al Krupski of the North Fork at the bill signing at Lake Ronkonkoma Thursday.

Suffolk County will now require that nitrogen-reducing septic systems be used in all new construction in unsewered areas of the county, after new legislation unanimously passed the Suffolk County Legislature last week and was signed by Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone on Thursday.

The law will also allow greater flexibility for the use of small sewer plants in downtown business districts.

The changes are part of Suffolk’s overall plan to address longstanding problems created by the lack of sewer infrastructure in most of the county, which have led to nitrification of ground and surface waters and increasing harmful algae blooms.

Nitrogen-reducing septic systems will be required in all new home and commercial construction, and for single family home renovations that increase the number of bedrooms to more than five and increase the building’s footprint or floor area. The new requirements take effect in July of 2021.

The use of small downtown sewage treatment plants is a change intended to assist businesses that rely on cesspools to shift to systems that reduce nitrogen instead, allowing expansion of uses while also better protecting water quality.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone’s office held a signing ceremony Thursday at Lake Ronkonkoma County Park.

“Protecting water quality is a top priority for both our region’s environment and our economy,” said Mr. Bellone. “The actions we take today will allow for greater investment in our downtown business districts and help to ensure that future generations will be able to enjoy cleaner water in the bays, harbors and beaches that make Suffolk County such a special place.”

“The critically important step the county takes today reflects a broad scientific consensus that excess nitrogen from the grossly-outdated practice of burying untreated human waste in the ground above our sole source of drinking water has had a detrimental impact on our bays, rivers and harbors, and threatens our drinking water supply,” said South Fork Suffolk County Legislator Bridget Fleming.

The new law is the latest in a series of actions the county has taken in recent years to move away from the use of cesspools and septic systems. In 2016, Suffolk County established Article 19 of the Suffolk County Sanitary Code, which set forth a rigorous testing system for new individual nitrogen reducing septic systems (I/A OWTS). 

In 2017, Suffolk County began its Septic Improvement Program, which provides grants and low interest financing to make the replacement of cesspools and septic systems with new IA technologies affordable for homeowners. To date, more than 1,900 homeowners have applied for the program, 1,082 grants have been awarded and nearly 600 IA systems have been installed. New York State has awarded Suffolk $10 million in State Septic System Replacement Funds and the county is anticipating receiving a second award of state funding in early 2021.

Three years ago, the county also implemented a new cesspool ban, closing a loophole that had existed in the Sanitary Code since 1973, and required “grandfathered” business properties to install nitrogen-reducing advanced septic systems. 

“I would like to thank the County Executive for his leadership in advancing wastewater treatment,” said North Fork County Legislator Al Krupski. “Mainlining our human waste, along with all the other cleaners, health and beauty care products and pharmaceuticals, into our drinking water is not sustainable. I am very impressed with the leadership of Peter Scully, the hard work and diligence of the Suffolk County Health Department, Planning and the Department of Public Works.” 

“These proposed changes to the health code represent critical steps in the restoration of Suffolk County’s water quality and demonstrate that the county is not simply studying the problem, but rather is taking action to protect public health and coastal ecosystems,” said Dr. Christopher Gobler a professor of coastal ecology and director of the New York State Center for Clean Water Technology Stony Brook University. “For decades, scientists documented declines in water quality that contributed to the collapse of vital shellfish industries, like hard clams and bay scallops. Now, Suffolk County is using the best science available to make the changes needed to reverse decades of decline. We will all reap the benefit of these changes for decades to come.”

Beth Young

Beth Young has been covering the East End since the 1990s. In her spare time, she runs around the block, 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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