Column: It’s about time we clean up our act

A sandbar juts into Peconic Bay at the end of Pine Neck Road in Southold. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch)
A sandbar juts into Peconic Bay at the end of Pine Neck Road in Southold. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch)

Compared to people living in western Long Island, those on the East End are in a better position to recognize the connection between the environment and the economy. The region also has a proven track record when it comes to protecting a way of life. Case in point: the Community Preservation Fund, which uses a tax on local real estate transactions to preserve farmland and open space. 

The folks out here are now being expected to lead when it comes to tackling a persistent and serious threat to Long Island: our own waste.

Among the bigger problems with our health and environment is the fact that, like an isolated tribe in a Third World country, we pee and poop where we drink. And we’ve been doing it for decades, flushing our toilets directly into the ground, where our waste seeps into the aquifer and flows into the Sound and bays.

But those waters — the shallow bays especially — can’t handle the nitrogen from our toilets. Algal blooms that result in brown, red and rust tides devour the stuff, muscling out nutritious algae and decimating shellfish populations, which haven’t bounced back since the first brown tides were spotted in the mid-1980s.

Last month, the East End Supervisors and Mayors Association asked Albany for $100 million to tackle the problem through rebates for the installation of residential denitrification systems that would filter out nitrogen. Whether it’s done through the state, or something akin to the Community Preservation Fund — or even through an overhaul of that program itself — finding a source of funding remains crucial. But the beauty of “going first,” if you will, in the move away from outdated septic systems is that we would enjoy the benefits here in relatively short order, says Chris Clapp, a marine scientist with The Nature Conservancy.

“Particularly with the Peconic Bay,” he said, explaining that groundwater contaminants reach the bay much faster from land here than from, say, someplace mid-Island like Bethpage or Centereach.

“The amount of time it would take to see positive impacts of any [clean water] improvements we make is on the order of five to 10 years, as opposed to 20 to 50 years with the Great South Bay,” Mr. Clapp said.

By improvements, ideally, we’re talking no more algal blooms, cleaner waters, the return of abundant shellfish populations and more opportunities for baymen and fishermen — among other benefits enjoyed by our parents and grandparents.

I met Mr. Clapp in May 2006, when I was working on a project as a Columbia journalism school student. I joined him and another marine scientist on a boat trip into the Great South Bay, where The Nature Conservancy had been using adult clams to try to restock underwater land donated to them by the once-famous but now-defunct Blue Point Oyster Company. The experiment ultimately failed, in the sense that the clams didn’t reproduce as hoped. But the project was a success in that its findings and subsequent research — led by Ivan Valiela of the renowned Wood’s Hole laboratories on Cape Cod — allowed scientists to hone in on the real reason local estuaries’ lack healthy clam populations: nitrogen, with the majority coming from our wastewater.

So we now know what the problem is — and what to do about it. But one thing on so many county residents’ minds, especially those who live near the water, is the cost of replacing cesspools. Mr. Clapp says it’s almost counterproductive to consider the current costs of purchasing, installing and maintaining de-nitrificaiton systems, because there’s no big demand for products and no infrastructure in place to install and maintain them in large numbers.

Currently, he said, such systems cost “anywhere from just a couple thousand more than a traditional septic system to considerably more.”

“But,” he continued, “if these [companies] knew they had hundreds of thousands of potential customers and could reliably get to that scale, you’d see the price drop considerably.”

Denitrification systems from several different manufacturers will be installed at select Suffolk County homes later this month. Those that perform will be certified within the year.

When considering this issue, I’m often reminded of some advice from a former Columbia instructor, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Josh Friedman.

In an international reporting class, he gave the example of a Peace Corps mission having to convince the natives that it’s not in their best interest to use the river as a bathroom, and choosing how best to do so. I reached out to him recently and asked that he revisit the points he made back then. He responded that he told the Peace Corps story “to illustrate the importance of getting to know the way a community works and getting the trust of its people before trying to introduce change.”

“I said reporters had to do the same to gather good information from people,” he continued. “The example was a community where it was clear statistically that sewage-contaminated water was causing a lot of illness and even death. But changing that would not be easy. You couldn’t just call a meeting on arrival and announce that the people would have to stop shitting in their water. They’d see you as just some stranger happening by and it would have no effect. But if you lived among the people, got their trust, especially the trust of legitimate leaders, you could then tell them the same thing — and have a great effect.”

People like Mr. Clapp and many others have been working to gain our trust for years. It’s high time the rest of us natives start to listen.

Michael White, editorThe author is editor of The Suffolk Times and Riverhead News-Review. He can be reached at [email protected] or 298-3200, ext. 152.