The state of nitrogen loading in Suffolk County’s bays has reached crisis proportions, says Peconic Baykeeper Kevin McAllister, who, as part of a celebration of the 40th anniversary of the Clean Water Act, announced plans to fight against major sources of groundwater pollution.
At a press conference at the Quogue Wildlife Refuge in Quogue Tuesday, Mr. McAllister and his attorney, Reed Super, announced that they just submitted a petition to the New York State DEC asking for modifications to 1,338 State Pollutant Discharge Elimination Systems (SPDES) permits for sewage treatment and septic systems in Suffolk County.
Mr. Super said these systems are under federal jurisdiction under the Clean Water Act because they are point source discharges to groundwater that is used by Long Islanders for their drinking water supply.
He said 79 of the sewage treatment plants and 796 of the septic systems that have SPDES permits in Suffolk County discharge directly to groundwater that is already not meeting drinking water standards. Four of the septic systems discharge directly to impaired surface waters and 70 discharge to groundwater that is directly hydrologically connected to surface waters.
Mr. Super said the septic system permits apply to systems with holding tanks of 1,000 gallons or larger, more than three times the size of the average residential system, and are used at large hotels, restaurants and other commercial establishments.
Mr. McAllister said the county’s Comprehensive Water Resources Management Plan, released last year, was quickly shoved under the rug, despite the fact that it showed nitrogen concentrations are increasing exponentially in Long Island’s aquifers.
He said the study proved that 70 percent of the nitrogen in the Great South Bay was due to wastewater, and said he believes the same percentage is likely due to wastewater in the Peconic Bays, though other scientists have claimed the nitrogen levels were due to atmospheric deposition of nitrogen in rainwater.
Mr. McAllister added that the drinking water standard that requires nitrogen levels of less than 10 milligrams per liter is 20 times higher than the level needed to have a healthy marine ecosystem.
“This legal initiative is an attempt to get the State of New York to do its job,” he said, adding that he hopes the state will revisit the permits and ask the polluters to use new methods to control pollution, including the Nitrex and BESST small-scale sewage treatment systems, both of which are approved by the county but can be costly to install.
Suffolk County Legislator Ed Romaine, who was also at the press conference, said he has tried to get the county legislature to use part of the quarter-percent county sales tax for drinking water protection to fund grants to property owners who want to upgrade their septic systems. He said the legislature refused to consider the idea.
“We have huge challenges ahead and I fully intend to continue what I’m doing [on this issue],” said Mr. Romaine, who recently announced he is running for Brookhaven Town Supervisor.
“Not all of this county is going to be sewered, nor should it be,” he said. “We have to provide funding for people to replace their systems.
“Kevin’s absolutely right about the policies of Suffolk County. We’ve allowed the proliferation of inexpensive, inefficient sewage treatment plants.”