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Battle over treating wastewater comes down to location, location, location

Members of Friends of Coecles Harbor, LLC, a newly-formed civic group, believes there’s a better, more cost effective solution to water contamination in the Center than one offered by the Town and its consultant.

The group has enlisted speakers to make their case at an upcoming Town Board work session.

Two of those speakers — Stony Brook University Professor Christopher Gobler, Ph.D., and Peconic Baykeeper Peter Topping — had previously indicated there was a better proposal than siting a wastewater treatment system on Manwaring Road.

Mr. Gobler is slated to make a full presentation to the Town Board at its Oct. 11 work session at 1 p.m. He will be discussing a 23-page report outlining his suggestions.

The Town Board’s recommendation is to remove wastewater from municipal buildings in the Center and pipe it to the Manwaring Road site for treatment.

An original proposal, to install a wastewater treatment plant at Klenawicus Airfield to service the Center buildings, was scrapped after neighbors organized against it and a Reporter article noted that the area is subject to periodic and severe flooding.

Based on what was said at the September meeting, Mr. Gobler and Mr. Topping dispute a conclusion in a report from the Town’s consultant, Lombardo Associates, that use of nitrogen-reducing I/A septic systems would not be viable because setbacks between wells and septic systems could not meet County requirements.

Friends of Coecles Harbor sent a letter to the Town Board and distributed it to neighbors living near the Manwaring Road site. Neighbors also received copies of paid advertisements that Friends of Coecles Harbor placed in the Reporter.

The letter maintains Dr. Gobler will say the Suffolk County Department of Health Office of Wastewater Management has never denied a variance for installation of a new I/A system that maintains the existing distances between the old septic system and a well used for drinking water.

Mr. Gobler, a professor at the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at Stony Brook, has not yet responded to a request filed with the school for a further discussion of his views.

He and Mr. Topping told the Board at the September meeting they believed the solution the Town was planning would result in moving the problem from one site to another, specifically, from the Center to Gardiners Creek.

The letter signed by William Derrough, president of Friends of Coecles Harbor, said use of on-site I/A systems they call “fiscally and environmentally superior” to the Lombardo plan should be “fully explored and then implemented by the Town to address the water contamination.”

Councilwoman Meg Larsen, who works for Shelter Island Sand, Gravel & Contracting, owned by her family, has extensive experience with I/A systems and the steps involved in gaining County approvals.

Ms. Larsen said that in an emergency upgrade of a substandard residential system, the County will allow installation of an I/A system that fits within distances between the existing septic system and a well providing drinking water.

But a new septic system can’t move any closer to neighboring properties. There are areas of the Island where the Office of Wastewater Management has allowed a 100-foot distance between the septic system and the well because that was the previous distance required.

Every application is unique, but these exceptions apply only to residential installations, Ms. Larsen said. The Town’s proposed wastewater system does not provide connections to residences. It’s for municipal buildings, Shelter Island School and Library, as well as the Police Department, Justice Court and the Center Firehouse.

All buildings are categorized as commercial uses, where the County requirements are more stringent, Ms. Larsen said. Commercial uses “must be designed based on strength of the effluent, not flow rate,” she said. Such systems by their nature are larger and more expensive than residential systems, she said.

Tuesday morning, Mr. Topping said the consultant’s report he read was too quickly dismissive of using I/A systems. He favors I/A systems because they can be installed rapidly and at a lower cost than the plan the engineering report recommends.

He pointed out that if there is any failure of an I/A system, it can be dealt with more easily than fixing a large treatment system.

He acknowledged that Peconic Baykeeper has been involved with an I/A project in the North Sea Beach Colony in Southampton and had an I/A system installed on his property. But he noted the Peconic Baykeeper is not currently involved with any I/A systems.

Mr. Topping is asking the Town to “take a step back.” He understands Mr. Gobler spoke with representatives of the Suffolk County Health Department Office of Wastewater Management, who didn’t dismiss the possibility of granting a variance for a Town effort if I/A systems were used.

County representatives don’t guarantee actions until they act on specific applications. There hasn’t yet been a response from anyone at the Office of Wastewater Management for a direct comment.