Featured Story

Sparks fly at Town Hall on septic systems: Town Engineer warns nitrates tip of problem

In a discussion marked by major differences of opinion and, at times, anger, the Town Board Tuesday moved a step closer to adopting changes in its code to improve water quality.

But Town Engineer Joseph Finora cautioned the Town Board that even steps being designed to lower nitrate levels by improved septic systems won’t begin to address emerging problems.

If every building on the Island had a nitrogen-reducing I/A septic system (Innovative/Alternative) , he said, it would be a “shallow” approach to the problems. Latent pharmaceuticals, for example, and some other contaminants, aren’t treated by I/A systems, he said.

With 90% of Island residents taking their water from the ground, they’re putting their health “at risk,” Mr. Finora added. What is being put into the ground is coming back up in the water supply.

The town needs an Island-wide model of its aquifer, the engineer said. It’s needed to develop a sound approach to deal with the quality of the water.

“If you don’t have good modeling, you don’t know what you’re doing,” Water Advisory Committee member Ken Pysher said, telling the Town Board it needs to hire a hydrologist, which requires a financial commitment.

Julia Weisenberg, a member of the Water Quality Improvements Advisory Board, agreed there should be groundwater monitoring to avoid guessing about needs and the Town Board should investigate the cost.

Councilman Albert Dickson wants a requirement for certification of existing systems whenever residences undergo construction that involves an addition or expansion. Such an inspection would ensure that the existing septic system is properly functioning and able to handle wastes that could be increased by the building changes, he said.

Others argue it would cost money while failing to achieve the aim of closing loopholes the councilman seeks. He’s particularly concerned that older houses may have septic systems that are not functioning properly and need to be replaced.

Planning Board Chairman Ian McDonald charged he and his members think the requirement would be redundant to what already happens under Suffolk County Department of Health Services restrictions. When systems were installed and certified by the county, they provided for growth, Mr. McDonald said. Unless a system failed or the expansion would be so extensive that a larger system would be needed, residents should not have to pay for a new costly inspection.

Mr. Dickson said Planning Board members, because of their professional roles, have conflicts of interest, which angered Mr. McDonald. Matt Sherman of Sherman Engineering & Consulting insisted there’s no conflict because it would be to a contractor’s advantage to find a need for a system upgrade since it would put more money in his pocket for more work.

“You’re trying to paint with a very wide brush,” Mr. Sherman said.

“All I’m trying to do is reduce nitrates,” Mr. Dickson replied.

Proper maintenance is important, but there’s no provision in the proposal that would force a homeowner to properly maintain a septic system, said Building Inspector Chris Tehan.

Planning Board member Meg Larsen, a professional in the family business of installing and servicing septic systems, said properly maintained systems are like new when they’re pumped out and cleaned. Adding a new inspection and certification on properties undergoing expansions is an unneeded complication, she said.

Mr. Dickson remained unconvinced and said the Town Board should take steps now. He was backed by resident Pam Demarest who said she’s worked in the water quality field and thinks inspections would catch more problems than others might expect.

The Town Board will have to address mandating installation of nitrate-reducing systems in the next five to 10 years, Supervisor Gerry Siller predicted. Mr. Dickson noted that Massachusetts and other states have taken steps mandating I/A systems if an existing system is more than two years old.

After several loud, heated exchanges, Councilman Jim Colligan said those with opposing views have to start talking to one another and not screaming at one another. Gordon Gooding, chairman of the town’s Community Preservation Fund Advisory Board, but speaking as a individual, noted Shelter Island is not so different from places like Nantucket that has already tackled similar issues. “What’s the downside of being overly cautions?” Mr. Gooding asked.  “There’s nothing wrong with erring on the side of safety.”