By Courtney M. Holbrook
For years, the bays and ponds have been cornerstones of the environmental beauty of Noyac, Southampton and Sag Harbor. Now, some worry about preserving that marine landscape.
The Noyac Civic Council met on Saturday, June 18, to discuss potential environmental dangers to the Peconic Bay Estuary and other freshwater locations posed by current waste systems used in Suffolk County. Kevin McAllister, the Peconic Baykeeper, spoke to the group about current sewage waste regulatory and technological deficiencies in the county.
“My job has always been to be an advocate for conservation and to fight against pollution threats,” McAllister said. “Well, there is a problem with the current sewage waste treatments; it’s impairing the waters with high levels of nitrogen.”
McAllister sees nitrogen as the real pollutant danger in local waters today. The pollution, he notes, comes from household cesspools, or Onsite Wastewater Treatment Systems (OWTS).
Over the last six years, McAllister said he has noticed “red tide,” which releases bio toxins into the water. Those toxins, which feed on nitrogen, kill fish, clams and other creatures. It was when McAllister last flew over the waters of the East End in a helicopter that he saw “streaks of red, like a Picasso painting” moving from Riverhead to the eastern side of Shelter Island. In recent years, McAllister added he has also noticed brown tide moving in from the area of Hampton Bays.
Red and brown tide occur when algae congregate in high concentrations. The high congregations are harmful to other marine species, as the toxins from the mass suffocate other life forms. In many instances, nutrient laden water pollution contributes to the growth of these algae groups, or “blooms,” according to McAllister.
After years of research, McAllister said he determined that the cause of the water pollution came from nitrogen generated by OWTS.
“Groundwater seepage into the freshwater is a problem that has been ignored,” McAllister said. “The cesspools don’t stop nitrogen from urine when they treat waste, and that unloads into the local water body.”
A traditional OWTS can create approximately six pounds of nitrogen per person every year, according to McAllister. As a man who spends his life on the water, McAllister says he has seen the pollution levels rise, and he fears what could happen to the waters of the East End should change not occur.
To the standard observer, it seems like an uphill battle. Approximately 80 percent of households in Suffolk County have OWTS; many of them were installed before sanitary regulations were changed in the late 1970s. McAllister explains that many of these septic systems release wastes into what is known as a leaching pit. This leaching pit blocks certain bacteria from the soil. Nitrogen, however, moves more easily through the soil and releases itself into the groundwater. This is the same groundwater that moves into the bays and ponds on the East End.
McAllister believes the solution lies in “updating OWTS systems to include denitrification dilution systems that protect our water bodies.” The typical septic system in Suffolk County discharges approximately 40 milligrams of nitrogen. Updated septic systems, such as those found in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, release approximately 10 to 14 milligrams of nitrogen, according to McAllister.
“If we keep putting these same losers in the ground, shame on us,” McAllister said. “The county has got to change their ways.”
Some might ask why — if these systems are so important — the county has not already mandated them. As is often the case, notes McAllister, it comes down to money and the alternative septic tanks are more expensive. While the typical septic tank costs on average $8 to $10 thousand, the alternative septic tanks cost approximately $20 thousand.
“They are more expensive,” McAllister acknowledged. “But if we install [the septic tanks] over time, we will save ourselves from future costs to the environment with these up-to-date systems. The county doesn’t want to spend the money [on enforcement], but the health of our water and our community is at stake.”
As the discussion concluded, McAllister reiterated the dangers to the water from OWTS nitrogen. He hopes that popular support for the alternative septic tanks will encourage lawmakers to reconsider their stance.
“We’re on the cusp of a county water crisis,” McAllister said. “If we don’t upgrade, we’re in danger of losing the natural beauty of our bays.”