On Dec 4th, I came back to Sayville to witness what could one day be of at least minor historical note. Suffolk County was having installed one of its pilot onsite denitrification systems right there Sayville, my hometown. A lottery was held by the county, and here was the prize: Your cesspool / septic tank would be replaced with an onsite system for free. There were nineteen winners, countywide. Now begins the pilot. How will they perform over the course of the year? Is the effluent (say, nitrogen levels) compliant? If these onsite systems are governed to be compliant, then they can begin to figure out how we can deploy them at scale. Is the cesspool / septic tank replaced upon sale? Is there a ‘flush tax’ such as they have in Maryland around Chesapeake Bay. How beautiful would Long Island be again if we were to address our waste water treatment issues.
So there I was, watching at a Norweco Singulair being installed, and right in Sayville, and thinking of a healthy bay.
Here was just perhaps the start of what will ultimately save The Great South Bay and other bays, ponds, and streams on Long Island. We all know what the problem is — 360,000 cesspools and septic tanks in Suffolk alone. While the county has secured $383 million to replace 15,000 along four major rivers going into the GSB, it is not at all clear where the next tranche of funds would come from to address the remaining. So we have two choices — Sewering or on site systems. That will be a continuing debate. A mixed solution is sometimes called for. But long term, my money is on the on site systems. They will be cheaper, quicker to market, a boon for the local economy, and would improve home value.
I am coming to the conclusion from my visit that on-site systems are a solution superior to sewering – cheaper, innovating, more sustainable.
Sewering would cost about $25,000 per household ($383 million divided by 15,000). Then you’d have to increase capacity at Bergen Point significantly, and build another outfall pipe on top of that [ Correction: Dorian Dale, Director of Sustainability & Chief Recovery Officer for Suffolk County noted that Bergen is currently capable of increasing capacity to meet the predicted increased load, and that the outfall pipe, that section running under Fire Island to the ocean is in good shape. I’d meant that length of pipe running from the plant to Fire Island, which Mr. Dale confirmed needs addressing]. That $25K per location can be arrived at by taking the number offered up by IBM’s Smart Cities analysis — $10 billion, and dividing that by the number of cesspools / septic tanks deemed most in need of removing by the county, 209,000. That yields again $25K per unit. What if we could bring down the cost significantly by deploying these on-site systems where appropriate — out from the center of town where homes are more widespread and therefore more costly to hook up?
The on-site system I saw installed by Tom Montalbine of Roman Stone Construction Company in Bayshore stated that in volume the Norweco Singulair could reach $12000 per, and that is with all the manufacture being done on Long Island. We are as a county on a mission to bring the very best in waste water treatment technology to Stony Brook’s Clean Business Incubator Program and to the world.
This denitrification technology can lead us towards sustainable towns. The treated water can be used for lawns and gardens, with the remaining nitrogen taken up by plants. The remaining water would then be taken up by the aquifer. Instead of draining it as with sewering, we’d be replenishing it. Further, while sewering technology is unlikely to advance, these stand alone denitrification systems will continue to improve, and the price for them continue to drop.
Finally, it would be far easier to finance the installation of such systems home by home, using, say, a “flush tax” as they do in Maryland, rather than trying to float a bond issue for $10 billion to sewer it all, and hope its gets done in 10-15 years. Given the urgency of the situation, we just cannot afford to wait 10+ years to see sewering.
So what is the mechanism for rolling out these systems? Healthy waters certainly improve property values, improve the local economy if its at all related to the bay. Bringing back the clams and oysters would resurrect our heritage, and preserve an almost vanished way of life. Can the Great South Bay be sustainable? It has to be.
In a way seeing this install on Dec 4th was like seeing The Cavalry arrive. So much of the bay’s nitrogen comes from cesspools and septic tanks. We are attacking ‘the rest of the problem’ — pesticides, lawn fertilizers, illegal dumping, where to recycle. I was gratifying to see that there was hope at the same time that we could begin to tackle the thousands of cesspools and septics in town and watch how our local waters recover.
The local moratorium began in at least four places — the students themselves. They chose this local cause — the bay — and an effort they could take to help — the moratorium. Blue Island Oysters, a local oyster farm headquartered in West Sayville, is calling as well for a moratorium. Grassroots Environmental Education, the org that supplied Save The Great South Bay with the collateral efforts by producing the literature working in partnership with Sayville High School Freshmen and local businesses to institute a local ban on pesticides and lawn fertilizer.
Our goal is threefold:
1. Buy the bay time by reducing, household by household, the nitrogen and toxic chemical load flowing into the GSB
2. Give local shell fisheries the chance to expand. Oysters filter 30-50 gallons of water a day. Even if we got rid of all the septic tanks and cesspools tomorrow, we’d still have years and years of additional nitrogen seeping into the bay. Here’s how we address that problem.
3. Related to #2, we want to resurrect an industry and a heritage.
The Great South Bay until recently produced half of all the hard shell clams eaten. Before that the oysters. What would our waters look like with no pesticides or non organic fertilizers, as with the moratorium, and now the prospect of solving the septic tank situation? What if we could indeed save The Great South Bay? On Dec 4th, I thought I saw the future.