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Wastewater debate at Town Hall: Two experts lock horns

A close to three-hour Town Board work session Tuesday afternoon pitted engineer Pio Lombardo of Lombardo Associates against Stony Brook University Professor Christopher Gobler, Ph.D., over solving a wastewater problem produced by buildings in the Center.

Mr. Lombardo was hired by the Town Board to create a proposal to reduce nitrogen in Center water. His plan calls for piping liquid waste from several town buildings to a treatment system that would be located at 16 Manwaring Road, across from the Sylvester Manor farm stand.

Mr. Gobler, director of the New York State Center for Clean Water Technology and Endowed Chair of Coastal Ecology and Conservation at Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, was hired as a consultant by Friends of Coecles Harbor, an Island civic organization, to determine if there is an alternative to deal with the nitrogen problem at less cost and equal effectiveness.

Mr. Gobler proposed installation of I/A (Innovative/Alternative) nitrogen-reducing septic systems to serve the Center buildings, a plan he outlined in a 23-page report.

Mr. Lombardo, who has presented his findings in the past, refuted a number of statements in Mr. Gobler’s report as “inflammatory” and charged that the Stony Brook professor “knows very well” his conclusions are wrong. “It’s not professional to be making untrue statements,” Mr. Lombardo said. He said he and his team “seriously considered” I/A systems but determined that wouldn’t be a viable solution to the problem.

He denied the adverse impact on Gardiner’s Creek that the Gobler report predicts.

For his part, Mr. Gobler gave as good as he got. “We all want the same thing — clean water for Shelter Island,” Mr. Gobler said. He disputed the claim that I/A systems would require the Suffolk County Department of Health Wastewater requirements that 150 feet must be provided between a new septic system and a well providing drinking water.

Mr. Gobler cited a conversation he had with John Sohngen, principal engineer for the Suffolk County Department of Health, who said the 150’ requirement could be waived for a lesser distance that exists between the old septic system and a well.

The Orient Post Office received such a variance from the Health Department, Mr. Gobler said. He further warned that improper treatment of wastewater can lead to secondary byproducts that can pose health hazards.

Mr. Lombardo acknowledged there may be a single house where well water could be affected by effluent from the treatment system, and said if that proves to be the case, the Town would bear the cost of providing a new well that would be free from contamination.

But he said the effect on water in Gardiner’s Creek would be “de minimis,” a legal term meaning insignificant.

Councilwoman Meg Larsen, who has overseen installation of I/A systems working for her family’s company, Shelter Island Sand, Gravel and Contracting, told Mr. Gobler he was discussing the project as residential, when commercial installations would be needed and they are much more expensive to install. “Your math is just wrong,” Ms. Larsen said about Mr. Gobler’s estimate of costs of I/A systems versus the $3.1 million cost estimate for the Lombardo Nitrex treatment system and related piping.

The consultant argued that with inflation and other factors, the $3.1 million cost is more likely to be between $4 and $5 million.

Mr. Lombardo acknowledged the estimate is not meant to be exact, but said there is room built in to that estimate that could result in it costing less. He also said the award of a $250,000 Suffolk County grant to the town for the project is a demonstration that the County is putting in money to support the plan. He said Nitrex is the “best performing system, not the least costly,” adding that the system has been demonstrated to reduce nitrogen levels well below what I/A systems can provide.

Timing is an element, Town Engineer Joe Finora said. Inclusion of the school in the project requires pushing ahead because that building’s septics must be replaced, and if the administration and Board of Education back out, the district’s lone plan would only treat nitrogen and not other contaminants that could be determined to be a problem.

The Nitrex system is designed to allow for add-ons should other contaminants need treatment. Mr. Gobler argued that could be done with I/A systems as well.

Bob DeLuca, of the environmental organization, Group for the East End, appealed to the Town Board to examine 12 criteria for using water quality funding to judge the two proposals.

He called it a way to validate concerns and support whatever decision is reached about how to proceed.

Many residents had questions and comments for the Town Board, with some calling for abandoning the Lombardo plan; others asked for “an independent” assessment of the two proposals; and still others encouraged the Town Board to proceed with the Nitrex system as soon as possible.