Mapping The Rate of Septic Tank Seepage / Polluted Water Flow On Long Island

In September 2012, The Peconic Baykeepersubmitted a 200 page petition to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) citing some 1,338 sewage treatment plants and large septic tanks and cesspools on Long Island, all in Suffolk County, that contribute to local groundwater and bay pollution and are not properly controlled under the federal Clean Water Act.  Each of these septic tanks releases more than 1,000 gallons of human wastewater every day.  Together, they pump out as much waste as the single largest sewage treatment plant on the island – but without proper treatment.  Here is a map of where those facilities are:

Large Scale Septic Tank Systems
Large Septic Tanks and Cesspools

These treatment plants and septic systems are in condo and apartment complexes, in public parks, in shopping plazas and fast food restaurants. The problem is that Long Island is mostly sandy and porous. What goes in the ground seeps quickly enough into our streams, rivers, and bays – and into our drinking water. In the areas in red on this map, it takes less than 2 years for whatever goes in the ground — pesticides, lawn fertilizer, storm runoff, septic tank seepage (there are 400,000 septic tanks large and small on Long Island) to reach our bays. The result? Algal blooms, shellfish bed closings, beach closings, habitat destruction. The following maps — looking at all of Suffolk County and then various rivers and creeks — show just how vulnerable our waters are to groundwater pollution.  These maps were developed by the Suffolk County Department of Health Services and their consulting engineers.  At the very least, we need ecofriendly sewage treatment and runoff management in the red areas, and fairly immediately, or our waters will be unfit for swimming, fishing, clamming, and for marine life. Look at the maps below. Locate where you live – and realize that unless we start to manage our waste water, Long Island’s river and marine ecosystems will be beyond the point of no return. It doesn’t have to be this way – especially not in New York!  The Nitrex denitrification has been endorsed by EPA, approved by Suffolk County and installed in Massachusetts, Maryland, Virginia, Montana, Oregon, California, and Canada.  Researchers at some of New York’s best schools have developed  innovative ways to treat and denitrify human sewage.  Students and faculty at SUNY’s College of Environmental Science and Forestry are advancing the use of plant-based sewage treatment in human-engineered wetlands.  SUNY’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences has carefully studied the links between groundwater pollution and surface water quality on Long Island for decades.  And over at Columbia University, Professor Kartik Chandran is one of the country’s leading experts on special colonies of “annamox” bacteria that are revolutionizing nitrogen treatment in sewage systems.  Save The Great South Bay believes Long Island is worth saving.  A Long Island with dead bays and water not fit to drink, cook with, or bathe would cost a lot more than wise investments in conservation. Our friends at Peconic Baykeeper are asking the government to start by tackling the biggest and dirtiest septic systems on Long Island.  As it stands, Peconic Baykeeper has filed suit against the NYSDEC for failing to include nitrogen limits in permits as required by the Clean Water Act.  When presented with Peconic Baykeeper’s 200-page petition in September, the NYSDEC came back six months later with a half-page note asking for more information on the 1,338 sites.  Given the scale of the problem, we need a much greater sense of urgency if we are to save Long Island. Last week, Peconic Baykeeper announced that, unless the state government acts quickly, it plans to file a second lawsuit and turn up the pressure on government to protect our waters.  It turns out that six of the very largest septic systems on Long Island are controlled by public entities: five are located in state parks (Belmont Lake, Heckscher, Robert Moses, Sunken Meadow, and Wildwood), and one is located at SUNY’s Southampton campus.   Each of these publicly-owned septic systems discharges more than 30,000 gallons of sewage daily, in violation of the Clean Water Act, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, and the Safe Drinking Water Act too.  Peconic Baykeeper is giving SUNY and the State Parks ninety days to move into compliance with these laws before going to federal court.  Save The Great South Bay hopes that SUNY and the Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation jump on this issue and demonstrate the kind of environmental leadership that both institutions are normally associated with.