By Mara Certic
Dieter von Lehsten first visited the East End in 1969 and has owned a house in Southampton for 25 years. Since his retirement he has been a part of the Southampton Sustainability Advisory Committee and now serves as its co-chair. He discusses Southampton Town’s sustainability problems, plans and the potential solutions.
East Hampton Town set itself a pretty high energy-sustainability goal recently of powering 100 percent of the entire community’s electricity needs with renewable energy by the year 2020. Does Southampton have any similar objectives?
Yes, absolutely. But we’re a little bit more careful; we’re seeing what could realistically be done first, we’re not going for a full-blown 100-percent goal yet. It’s wonderful to aim for, but it’s difficult to achieve. Right now, there is an evaluation going on all town-owned land. The town is getting quotes from solar developers to see how much the installation of solar panels would cost and what could be done. What happens is that a developer looks at the area and determines if the property can produce enough megawatts for it to be worth their while. The town would then benefit from income from the lease of the land, and from the energy.
Before you joined the Southampton Town Sustainability Advisory Committee you were a trustee at the Nature Conservancy and a member of the Southampton Lakes and Pond Association. What do you think is the biggest problem facing local waters?
The lead, number-one problem we have out here is clean water: drinking water and the lakes, rivers, ponds and bays. We have over 300,000 septic systems here and most of them were built before 1970 and need repair. Usually plant roots take up some of the nitrates that do not get filtered out by the septic system before it gets into the groundwater. We only have a relatively thin layer of topsoil, which means that the plants do not take up as much of the nitrogen; instead it immediately hits gravel and sand, percolating down into our groundwater. But there’s a gigantic financial burden to homeowners to replace the systems. I sat in a Southampton Village Planning Board meeting recently where they discussed a mini-sewage plant that would treat the business district in the village. Even if you started work on it today, it wouldn’t be ready until 2020 with a cost of $25 million. So we have been looking into innovative septic systems. There’s one man who I introduced to the Suffolk County Department of Health, which must approve all septic systems, who has a system that looks like a little rocket. You put it in your septic system and it removes 95 percent and more of the nitrates. These cost $12,000 each, but we could find some financing assistance here.
Many of these things require a lot of planning and a lot of money. Is there anything on the Sustainability Committee’s agenda that could be achieved in the immediate future?
Yes, get rid of single-use plastic bags. This could be solved tomorrow if politicians got behind us. Some politicians think you can’t burden the poor citizens of our municipalities with another law, but in Southampton Town, we’ve done the study and all the figures now are substantiated: we are handing out 23 million bags yearly. The latest findings from the organization 5Gyres, which analyzes plastic islands that form at the center of “gyres,” or turning tides, show that not only is plastic on the top of the water, but on the layers below there are tiny, tiny pebbles of plastic. Fish then eat it because they think it’s wonderful food. Now these plastic pebbles are in our food chain and we’re eating tiny toxins. The issue is also that the litter goes into the ocean and kills the sea mammals, kills the birds that get tangled in them, kills fish and sharks. A plastic bag looks a lot like a jellyfish, so sea turtles eat them accidentally. I felt I’ve had a great life on the planet and so why not give back to it a little.