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Weighing the cost versus the benefits of new septic systems

The discussion at last week’s “Septic Savvy Citizens” meeting in Cutchogue was meant to cover the basics of the new Innovative/Alternative (I/A) septic systems: how they work and, more critically, why they are needed to protect groundwater and prevent further nitrogen seepage into the Peconic Bay estuary.

While nearly everyone who attended the meeting spoke in support of such systems, much of the discussion centered on how expensive they are to install, even when factoring in Suffolk County and New York State funding grants.

Present at Cutchogue New Suffolk Free Library were representatives of the Suffolk County Department of Health Services, Peconic Baykeeper, Group for the East End, Southold Town Supervisor Al Krupski and an industry representative.

Peter Topping, executive director of the Hampton Bays-based Peconic Baykeeper, described the septic systems currently in use at thousands of North Fork homes as “outdated” and “an active threat to water quality” because the wastewater inevitably makes its way into the estuary in the form of nitrogen pollution. 

“As more and more of us live out here,” Mr. Topping said, “this has become a serious issue.”

By contrast, the I/A systems “mechanically aerate wastewater and treat the effluent,” he said.

Bob Deluca of Group for the East End said the tens of thousands of homes in Suffolk County that for decades have relied on traditional septic systems have resulted in nitrogen leaching into marine estuaries. 

Mr. Deluca and other speakers said marine systems across the region have been impacted, resulting in algae blooms and loss of shellfish. Rising water temperatures have exacerbated these problems.

“Nitrogen is getting into our water,” he said. “We are telling people [the old systems] are not good enough.”

Mr. Topping, who grew up in Southampton, said the bays were “crystal clear when I was a kid. There was plenty of eel grass and fish. The first brown tide came in the eighties … Now, I’ve seen an increasing number of fish kills in our creeks. We are seeing oxygen levels in our creeks too low to support aquatic life. We are still struggling to get our shellfish back.

“We are continuing to put our waste into the ground,” he added. “We have to get away from this. The waste doesn’t stay there; it gets into our groundwater.”

Julia Priolo of the county department of health services spoke about grants available to offset the costs of the new systems. In December, Gov. Kathy Hochul announced $30 million in additional funding for the state’s Septic System Replacement programs, which are managed at the county level. Grant amounts vary based on a variety of factors ranging from the scope of the project to the overall assessed risk of leaving a current system in place. However, several speakers who had received grants and installed new systems said the costs of removing old septic tanks and installing new ones far exceeded the grants funding available.

Ms. Priolo said an estimated 250,000 homes in Suffolk County are still using traditional septic systems. While several in the audience agreed this is a serious environmental issue, many said that — even with grants — the high cost will prevent widespread conversion to the I/A systems.

“It’s obvious where the wastewater is going,” Supervisor Krupski said, adding that creating centralized neighborhood or hamlet-based sewage treatment systems would be “far too expensive.” He also noted that it is far cheaper to preserve open space than to increase housing density.

“Our economy out here is based on our water quality,” he said.

Several speakers pointed out that Suffolk County code specifies when the I/A systems have to be installed. Southold Town attorney Paul DeChance, in an interview, said county regulations require the new systems for all new home construction but added that “certain triggers at a parcel, such as an addition or modification of the structure,” could also require that an I/A system be installed.

Still, several speakers who had installed I/A systems said the costs not covered by grants ran too high. One person said he spent $40,000 on an I/A system for his two-bedroom home. Another said she received three bids to install the system at her home, one of which was as high as $50,000.

The meeting boiled down to two competing realities: the new I/A systems will prevent groundwater pollution, but the high cost will prevent many homeowners from installing them.