New York’s Suffolk County, on the eastern part of Long Island across the sound from Connecticut, faces a peculiar problem for such a populous place: septic tanks. The county of 1.5 million people has about 365,000 of the underground sewage tanks, and nearly all of them are leaking harmful pollutants -- especially nitrogen -- that are threatening the area’s environment as well as its economy.
The home of the Hamptons and other popular tourist destinations for New York-area beachgoers must frequently close those beaches because of algae blooms and other problems linked to high nitrogen levels. Worse yet, the nitrogen pollution has all but killed off the island’s once-famous clamming industry, a source of thousands of jobs as recently as the 1970s. And the pollution may have even made the effects of Hurricane Sandy more extreme, by eliminating coastal vegetation and wetlands that could’ve provided a natural barrier to the storm.
Sewage systems like Suffolk's are more commonly expected in rural areas and remote farms. Unlike sewers, which whisk wastewater away through pipes to a water treatment center, septic tanks filter the water on-site and release it underground. That means septic tanks are usually used for small buildings next to empty land.
So how did New York's fourth-most populous county get stuck with them?
The reason goes back to a political disaster several decades ago, says Suffolk County Executive Steven Bellone. County officials launched an ambitious effort in the 1970s to begin building sewers, but the project quickly devolved into delays, cost overruns, indictments and even the murder of a key witness on the eve of his court testimony.
Even now, two generations later, mentioning “sewer” in certain parts of Long Island immediately raises suspicions.
But even if the county wanted to install sewers today, the costs are prohibitive. Back in the 1970s, federal and state revenue would have paid close to 90 percent of the cost of building the sewer systems, but those funds have dried out, Bellone says. In suburban and semi-rural areas of the county, the cost of hooking up homes can run more than $100,000 apiece.
Meanwhile, the pollution has only gotten worse with decades of inattention. Although some sewer systems do exist on Long Island, more than 70 percent of Suffolk County residents rely on septic tanks. The county now has as many septic systems as the entire state of New Jersey. That can stymie economic growth, because septic systems can’t handle big developments.
“It’s a massive problem. It’s incredibly costly, so people shrug their shoulders and say there’s not much we can do,” Bellone says. “We’ve taken a different approach and said that’s not acceptable. We need a comprehensive plan, and we need to make progress every year. And we will get there.”
The first step in that process, Bellone says, is helping homeowners upgrade their septic tanks so that they can treat nitrogen. The county is now offering to help homeowners buy septic systems that treat wastewater and release nitrogen into the atmosphere rather than the ground. (Nitrogen is the most common element in the Earth’s atmosphere. But the chemical, which is often found in fertilizers, poses numerous problems when released into waterways.)
To encourage homeowners to make the upgrade, the county is offering to cover the first $11,000 of the new systems, which usually cost between $15,000 and $20,000. It is working with a local nonprofit and a bank to offer residents low-interest loans to cover the rest of the costs. Most of the people who are likely to apply, Bellone says, already have septic systems that aren’t working: Like all mechanical systems, septic tanks fail over time.
It's an admittedly small step toward solving Suffolk County's pollution problem, even after the state of New York agreed to contribute funds to the project as well. In the first five years, the effort will upgrade 5,000 septic systems, the county estimates. About 500 people have applied for the county’s new project so far, and the first new system will be installed this month.
Bellone hopes the first round will spark something bigger. The county is working with local septic tank maintenance and installation companies to make sure their workers are trained on the new technology. As the number of installations goes up, Bellone hopes the cost of new systems and their maintenance will go down. If advanced septic systems are more affordable, more customers will get them on their own.
Meanwhile, the county is also installing sewer systems in some areas, particularly in downtowns.
“It’s so important to get this foundation right,” Bellone says of the septic upgrades. “Through this pilot, we’re going to ramp this up to where we are going to solve this problem in one generation’s time.”