Q&A: County official shares I/A system insights

Last week’s Riverhead News-Review story discussed the issue of the new Innovative/Alternative (I/A) septic systems that can cost upwards of $30,000 — and even considerably more. While Suffolk County and New York State grants are available to help offset those costs, a number of our readers and those who attended an informational meeting in Cutchogue earlier this month said the price of installing the upgraded systems remains prohibitive.

We asked the Suffolk County Department of Health Services to address key points about the systems. The answers were provided by spokesperson Grace Kelly-McGovern. They have been edited for space and clarity. 

Q: What are the new I/A systems and why are they important for homeowners to install?

A: Suffolk County Sanitary Code specifies when an innovative and alternative onsite wastewater treatment system (I/A OWTS) is required to be installed for residential properties as means of sewage disposal. These new systems are designed to reduce wastewater nitrogen pollution from reaching groundwater. 

At the “septic savvy” meeting in Cutchogue, experts told an audience of about 30 people that nitrogen from thousands of older septic systems leach waste into the groundwater, which eventually reaches saltwater creeks and bays, creating a host of environmental issues that plague water quality and shellfish.

Q: When does the new I/A system have to be installed?

A: As of July 1, 2021, Article 6 requires the new systems to be installed for all new construction. The code defines residential new construction as the construction of a new dwelling on a vacant tax parcel; construction of a replacement residential dwelling; the addition of bedrooms to an existing residential dwelling; and the expansion of an existing residential dwelling that would require an expanded sewage disposal system.

Q: Are North Fork homeowners covered by this county code?

A: County health code covers all of Suffolk County, including all five East End towns and villages. However, some towns and villages have additional requirements for when the installation of I/A OWTS is required. In Southold Town, for example, the Planning Board and Town Trustees, whose responsibility includes areas within 100 feet of wetlands, can make decisions as to when these systems are required, but only within the context of county code.

Q: Many homeowners perform upgrades or remodeling. Does the county code requiring new systems cover them too?

A: The short answer is yes. If the remodeling is classified as “new” construction, then the homeowner must apply to the county for a permit for the new sewage treatment systems. There are exceptions within the county code that homeowners and their contractors should consult.

Q: How many older septic systems are still in use countywide?

A: The Suffolk County Wastewater Plan, adopted in July 2020, estimated that there are 365,000 residential onsite sewage disposal systems installed in Suffolk County, of which 252,530 are estimated to consist of cesspools only.

Environmental experts point to these systems as being a danger to groundwater, which leaches into bays and creeks. A number of speakers at the “septic savvy” meeting said the alternative to the old systems is large-scale treatment plants, which are hugely expensive and can lead to residential density, and the new I/A systems for individual homes.

One speaker at the meeting, Southold Supervisor Al Krupski, said land conservation, both farmland and open space, is the best way to deal with groundwater contamination from residential and commercial sewage. “Saving land is far cheaper in all respects,” he told the audience.

Q: A number of speakers cited I/A installation costs above $30,000. One said she got very different estimates from three contractors, with the highest over $50,000. Others said they didn’t anticipate related expenses, like having to move a well or hire an engineer to design the system. How much grant money is available to homeowners? 

A: Currently, Suffolk County and New York State provide grants. For the county, grants rise as high as $10,000. An additional grant of $5,000 can be made available for certain applicants. The state grants can amount to 50% of “eligible” costs, not including sales tax, pumping out of the old system and certain internal plumbing requirements, up to $10,000.