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Suffolk closeup: Fighting for clean water

BEVERELA WALZ Scallopers on Coecles Harbor.
BEVERELA WALZ Scallopers on Coecles Harbor.

The Town of East Hampton is moving ahead with a program to provide financial assistance to homeowners and businesses to upgrade their cesspool systems with new technology that drastically reduces nitrogen discharges.

It’s a program that should be countywide, and could be through a bill authored by Assemblyman Fred Thiele Jr. (I-Sag harbor).

Some 75 percent of homes in Suffolk use cesspools. This is problematic because the waste they discharge sends large amounts of nitrogen into the underground water table, a major cause of what is raising raised havoc with surface water, and contributing to brown tides and red tides.

But in recent years there has been the development of new sanitary systems that limit nitrogen discharges to extraordinarily low levels.

The hitch is that they cost about $15,000 each. East Hampton is creating a program where rebates would be provided for up to 100 percent of the $15,000. The money would be obtained by a change approved in referenda in the five East End towns in November of their Community Preservation Fund (CPF) legislation.

Since 1998, the CPF has raised nearly $1.2 billion to save farmland, open space and historical sites. The basis of CPF is a 2 percent transfer tax, paid by buyers on most real estate transactions. The CPF also last year was extended by 20 years to 2050.

The change O.K.’d in November allows for 20 percent of money raised by the CPF to be used for water quality projects, including the new low-nitrogen sanitary systems.

Mr. Thiele says he anticipates that Shelter Island will be following up the East Hampton program with a similar initiative, providing assistance under CPF to Islanders who install the new septic systems..

But there’s no CPF in central and western Suffolk County, although there was an effort several years ago to establish one in Brookhaven Town.

To remedy that, Mr. Thiele, whose district includes a piece of Brookhaven Town, has just introduced a bill to establish a county fund dedicated to water purity so assistance for the installation of the improved systems would be available countywide. Mr. Thiele has been central to CPF since its outset.

His measure is somewhat similar to a proposal advanced by County Executive Steve Bellone last year. It also is predicated on a charge to homeowners on the amount of water used.

However, there was resistance to the Bellone plan by some state legislators who feared the money might be used by the county for other purposes.

Mr. Thiele’s bill provides tight controls. The money collected would be in a “lock box” for no other use and, as noted in the measure, monitored through an “annual audit by an outside independent agency.”

There would be a 15-member board of trustees administering what would be called the Suffolk County Water Quality Restoration Act. The board would work with an advisory committee. Moreover, the program would only come into being if voters approve it in a countywide referendum.

It would cover the entire county and, on the East End, be in addition to money from the CPF. Mr. Thiele says that even with the CPF, the East End needs all the funding it can get to restore and preserve water quality.

Also, he said, the state is “probably” going to allot several billion dollars to back clean water initiatives, so with the program, “Suffolk would be in a position to leverage and attract those dollars.”

Under Mr. Thiele’s measure, there would be a “water quality restoration fee” of one-tenth of one cent per gallon of water usage. The first 125,000 gallons would be exempt. The amount of usage would be figured on the records of the Suffolk County Water Authority and other water companies, and for places where wells are used, a chart outlining estimates. “It is estimated the fee would generate $50 to $60 million annually for water quality improvement projects in the County of Suffolk,” says a state memorandum on Mr. Thiele’s bill.

The East Hampton plan, if approved, would provide 100 percent up to $15,000 of the cost of new sanitary systems in the construction of new homes and businesses, mostly in areas designated as water protection districts. All new construction and any house or business undergoing substantial expansion would be required to have the low-nitrogen systems.

“New construction, you’ve got to have new technology,” said Town Supervisor Larry Cantwell in a discussion of the plan at a board meeting last month. Outside of water protection districts, property owners replacing existing cesspools would receive half the cost of replacement and for those with modest income, up to three-quarters of the cost.

Kevin McAllister, founder of the Sag Harbor-based organization Defend H2O, who has long championed the new low-nitrogen systems, said he is “very pleased that East Hampton has taken the lead on this” and sees the county overall as “making great strides” in bringing the new low-nitrogen systems to Suffolk.