Suffolk Closeup: Sewers for Suffolk? Not so fast

KARL GROSSMAN

KARL GROSSMAN

Not since 50 years ago has there been such a major push for sewers in Suffolk.

The drive back then was led by construction interests that wanted work and development interests seeking increased population density that a switch from cesspools to sewers would allow. Newsday editorialized ceaselessly for sewers and Suffolk County Executive H. Lee Dennison, an engineer who believed sewers were the solution for handling waste, promoted the idea.

Used repeatedly in the drive was a full-page ad featuring a toilet bowl and the message that drinking water would be contaminated with the stuff that toilet bowls contain without the start of large-scale sewering in Suffolk. So was born the Southwest Sewer District.

I recall Shelter Island Supervisor Evans K. Griffing, chairman of the Suffolk County Board of Supervisors, blasting the toilet bowl ad as “unbelievable,” opposing the project and later decrying how “the pressure was brought on by Newsday … They touted it up no end, and finally a hysteria developed and people [in the proposed district] voted for it.”

With federal and state governments paying the lion’s share, the project ended up costing over $1 billion in 1970s’ dollars. In a county long riddled with corruption, it became one of Suffolk’s biggest scandals. There were indictments and convictions. Mr. Dennison’s successor as county executive, John V. N. Klein, lost his office as a result.

Now we aren’t met with a toilet bowl ad. The focus is on nitrogen from waste that has been migrating into our waterways, seen as causing brown and red tides, killing marine life and causing massive fish kills on the East End. As Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone has declared: “Nitrogen pollution is public enemy No. 1 for our bays, waterways, drinking supply and the critical wetlands and marshes that protect us from natural disasters like superstorm Sandy … More than 350,000 homes in Suffolk County are not sewered and are contributing nearly 70 percent of the pollution.”

Significantly expanding sewers in Suffolk was stymied post-Southwest Sewer District because large amounts of federal and state tax dollars were no longer available for sewers. In recent times that changed and big bucks are here again. The Bellone administration has gotten $383 million in U.S. and state money for new sewers.

Newsday has reported that it will take $9 billion for “completely sewering Suffolk.”

Meanwhile, County Legislator William Spencer of Centerport this month proposed a county referendum to increase the 8.6 percent sales tax in Suffolk to expand sewering.

And last month, Mr. Bellone named Peter Scully, who’s been Long Island regional director of the state Department of Environmental Conservation, to be county sewer czar.

Is the new push all about nitrogen in our waterways? And is sewering the best way to deal with this? As decades ago, when Mr. Griffing — and many others — spoke out, there are those challenging the Suffolk sewer drive.
“It’s a very dangerous path,” says Kevin McAllister, founder and president of the Sag Harbor-based environmental group Defend H20. “Mr. Bellone, in particular, has been pushing sewering for economic development under the guise of clean water.”

The recent fish and turtle kills again demonstrate “we have to clean up the bays,” says Mr. McAllister, long involved in protecting the marine environment. But nowadays as an alternative to sewers there are “advanced denitrification systems that can be installed in individual homes and on a community basis.”

They’re less expensive, and “all but eliminate” nitrogen in waste. Suffolk government, however, has only begun considering “at a snail’s pace” these high-tech systems that are a technological advancement over sewers, Mr. McAllister said. Moreover, he added, sewers “are tied to dramatic increases in housing density. Thus if sewering allows 100 housing units to become 1,000, that negates the benefits of sewage treatment.”

Bill Toedter, president of the North Fork Environmental Council, asks: “If sewering ‘solves’ the nitrogen pollution issue, then why are all of the bodies of water around Nassau County, which is over 90 percent sewered, some of the worst polluted waters on Long Island?”

Mr. Toedter also points to the high hook-up costs for those sewered, the subsequent fees and the 6- to 10-year time for sewer completion compared to swift installation of denitrification systems. Mr. Toedter, too, emphasizes the “added development” brought on by sewers and “promoting densities of population we cannot support.”

Richard Murdocco, who studied planning at Stony Brook University, has a master’s degree in public policy and writes “The Foggiest Idea” blog (thefoggiestidea.org). He’s analyzed the county’s newly released 1,040-page “Comprehensive Water Resources Management Plan,”noting that, “The current plan stresses the importance of reducing nitrogen but it doesn’t emphasize enough the ‘soft’ solutions, such as the most effective water protection tool, preserving open space or designing green buildings and pushing for tougher zoning.

Instead, the plan focuses on sewers and their relative effectiveness in achieving nitrogen reduction.”

Mr. Murdocco added, using a quote from the county report that, “the push for sewers reveals the county’s true intentions: To ‘stimulate development in order to promote economic growth and stability.’”

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