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Down and dirty facts about clean water solutions

BEVERLEA WALZ PHOTO Hay Beach Property Association members got a lesson about what’s critical about Shelter Island’s water supply Saturday from retiring Water Advisory Committee Chairman John Hallman (left) and Town Engineer John Cronin.

BEVERLEA WALZ PHOTO
Hay Beach Property Association members got a lesson about what’s critical about Shelter Island’s water supply Saturday from retiring Water Advisory Committee Chairman John Hallman (left) and Town Engineer John Cronin.

Town Engineer John Cronin said he tries to avoid politics.

Speaking to the Hay Beach Property Association Saturday at St. Mary’s Church along with John Hallman, Mr. Cronin acknowledged there’s clearly a need for septic system upgrades on Shelter Island. But it’s being hindered by elected officials at all levels trying to avoid being responsible for tax hikes.

Many homeowners can’t afford to install new septic systems that would properly treat wastes, he said.

Upgrades to systems that were installed at new houses in recent years could cost about $8,000, but owners of older houses with septic systems or cesspools would need systems that cost between $15,000 and $30,000.

Mr. Hallman noted homeowners could also have to spend $2,000 to $3,000 per year to maintain the systems.

Only three states — Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Maryland — have taken steps to implement programs to upgrade systems, Mr. Cronin said.

There are both good and bad reasons to direct some Community Preservation Fund money — the 2 percent fee property buyers pay — to upgrade systems, the engineer said. But he declined to get the argument for and against such a move, calling it a “political issue.”

Cesspools collect wastes, but they’re basically untreated and eventually leech into groundwater. Older septic systems partially treat wastes, but still allow tainted liquids to leech into groundwater, he said.

Mr. Cronin emphasized that eventually, all septic waste — some partially treated and the rest untreated — eventually makes its way “under the outhouse.” In other words, thanks to aging and ineffective cesspools and septic systems, some part of fecal waste is making it into drinking water.

He estimated the amount septic wastes ending up in groundwater from which people draw drinking water from their wells was about 5 percent. It may not sound like a lot, but it’s unlikely people would be happy to drink water knowing it contains 5 percent sewage, he added.

“We still have not addressed the problem effectively,” Mr. Cronin said. “It’s not incompetency, but a response to politics.”

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