Riverhead Town urged to act — with new cesspool regs

With brown tide and now red tide showing up in East End waters with more frequency, Peconic Baykeeper Kevin McAllister is urging that upgraded septic systems be required in new homes.

The brown tide first was detected in the 1980s in the Peconic Bay and officials blamed it for killing off much of the area’s shellfish at the time, and destroying the industry.

Brown tide has been seen recently in Moriches and Shinnecock bays, but it hasn’t been detected in the Peconic Bay for several years, Mr. McAllister said. In its place, however, is the red tide, which he said has been detected in Peconic Bay for six years running and which turned up a month ago in Shinnecock Bay, which is linked to Peconic Bay through the Shinnecock Canal in Hampton Bays.

Unlike brown tide, red tide contains toxins that are potentially harmful to humans if ingested, Mr. McAllister said at Thursday’s Riverhead Town Board work session.

“I did a flyover of the Peconics last August, and from Riverhead, from the river all the way out to Shelter Island, even shrouding the eastern side, it looked like a Picasso painting, just red streaks everywhere.”

He said the red tide, which wasn’t been seen in the Peconics so far this year, has traditionally turned up in the Peconic Bay in late July.

Mr. McAllister thinks the culprit is residential cesspools and increased residential development. Some scientists at Stony Brook University reached a similar conclusion earlier this year, according to Mr. McAllister, who works for a nonprofit Baykeeper environmental watchdog group.

He said 75 percent of the homes in Suffolk County have cesspools, and that polluted groundwater will eventually find it’s way into surface water. As the East End becomes more developed, it is no longer a rural area, and has become suburban, he said.

“We’re seeing an alarming trend in water quality degradation,” Mr. McAllister said.

Riverhead has a sewer district that collects and treats sewage, but it covers mostly commercial businesses in downtown Riverhead and Route 58. Most of the residences in the town use cesspools, officials said.

Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter agreed with Mr. McAllister, although he said that the town doesn’t control sanitary standards, which is under county jurisdiction.

The town is being required to do an $18 million upgrade to the commercial sewer plant. Mr. Walter said that upgrade will get done, although he’s unsure where the money will come from, especially with the state’s new two percent tax cap.

Mr. McAllister asked that the town simply “keep the dialogue going” on the problems caused by cesspools.

“We have to address it,” he said. “It’s the elephant in the room that’s been ignored…We are approaching a groundwater crisis.”

There are new upgraded cesspools that are being used in other areas, Mr. McAllister said, although he acknowledged that they are more expensive, in the range of $20,000 or more, per home.

Councilwoman Jodi Giglio also agreed with the severity of the issue Mr. McAllister presented.

“Our resorts, our commercial fishing, that’s all going to go away if we don’t address this,” she said. “Our economy is going to go down the tank.”
She feels that some of the problem could be addressed if the state and county allow the town’s sewer district to be extended further west on West Main Street, so it can take in Hotel Indigo and all of Tanger Outlet Center, along with the development to the east of that.

Those areas can’t be included in the sewer district because the area is within the boundaries of the state’s Wild, Scenic and Recreational Rivers Act, with limits development along the river. Because of this, Ms. Giglio said, many antiquated cesspools along the river continue to contaminate the water because they can’t be upgraded.

Mr. McAllister said many of the “chromoglass” sewage treatment plants approved for individual businesses are failing, and are polluting the groundwater.

“If there’s something specifically we can do, let me know,” Mr. Walter said. “We don’t control sanitary standards.”

Mr. McAllister urged the town to lobby the county to require upgraded cesspools.

“The solutions are out there but it’s going to cost,” Mr. McAllister said. “But we can’t stop talking about it.”

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