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Jun 26, 2017 11:09 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Schools Could Be A Target For Fast Water Quality Improvements

Jun 27, 2017 3:40 PM

As East End towns and Suffolk County put together strategies for reducing the amount of nitrogen released into local waters from septic systems, water quality advocates are spotlighting some of the largest, most concentrated sources of nitrogen-tainted wastewater that often are overlooked—school buildings.

With hundreds of students and faculty using each of the 20 major school buildings on the South Fork, some of those working to stanch the harm to water quality from human waste say that schools should be considered potential priorities for new, well-funded efforts to address the problem, since they could offer quick and, in some cases, critical improvement.

“These are entire communities in one building,” Kevin McAllister, the former Peconic Baykeeper and president of Defend H20, a Sag Harbor-based nonprofit water quality advocate, said recently. “A school that has 800 to 900 students and teachers, that’s [the equivalent of] hundreds of homes. You upgrade that one [septic] system—that’s a lot of bang for the buck.”

In the six years since Stony Brook University scientists made the conclusive connection between nitrogen from septic system effluent and the explosion of harmful algae blooms in tidal bays and freshwater ponds on Long Island, the growing crusade to lower nitrogen levels has largely focused on decades-old cesspools and failing septic systems beneath tens of thousands of homes.

After last year’s voter-approved extension of the Community Preservation Fund tax, the South Fork towns are expected to have more than $10 million a year available to them for water quality improvement efforts. The officials formulating strategies for how to direct the money have turned first to setting up rebate programs that help homeowners replace outdated cesspools and septic tanks with new systems that reduce the discharge of nitrogen.

Mr. McAllister and others say that while residential rebate programs are likely the ultimate key in the war on nitrogen, replacing small systems one at a time could take years, or decades, to show substantial reductions in nitrogen loading.

But, he argues, directing some substantial chunks of money—likely several hundred thousand dollars per building—to new septics at schools could speed up the effort.

“How quickly are you going to get into 250 homes with rebates?” Mr. McAllister said. “If the goal is nitrogen reduction, there are systems approved for these buildings now, and they should be employed. The same goes for commercial buildings. If we’re serious about this, we should focus on these facilities.”

Most school buildings on the South Fork, and statewide, use septic tanks that capture solid waste, combined with leaching pools into which liquid wastewater from toilets is pumped to allow it to filter back into the ground.

There are concerns that some older schools that have not undergone renovation projects in many decades may still utilize cesspools, which are little more than underground caverns into which waste is flushed. But there are no documents that identify which, if any, still use the outdated systems.

Cesspools were banned by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2001 and were all supposed to be abandoned by 2005—but which properties are still connected to cesspools requires investigation by engineers, and there is essentially no enforcement of the cesspool mandate.

Septic tank systems have been the standard for most residential and commercial properties since 1982. They have been shown to release about 50 milligrams of nitrogen per liter of wastewater—a level that was not seen as significant when protecting drinking water quality was the top priority of health code regulators, but has been found more recently to be well above the levels that bays can handle without feeding algae blooms.

Modern commercial-grade wastewater treatment systems can reduce the amount of nitrogen released to 10 mg/l or less. There are four such systems approved for use in so-called intermediate flow—anything that generates over 1,000 gallons of wastewater per day—for buildings in Suffolk County.

While Suffolk County health codes would require any newly built commercial property with the anticipated wastewater flow rates of a school to have a more advanced wastewater treatment system, school construction and renovations are regulated solely by the State Education Department—and it imposes no such requirements.

Even the newest school buildings in the region, and those that have had major capital improvements in recent years, are required only to have the same septic tank and leaching pool systems employed since 1982.

“There’s no high-tech system available to us as an option,” said Rich Snyder, assistant superintendent of the Eastport South Manor School District, which constructed the Tuttle Avenue School in Eastport in 2010. “That wasn’t that long ago, but back then nitrogen wasn’t on anyone’s radar.”

Similarly, Hampton Bays Middle School, which was constructed in 2008, was built with the standard septic tank and leaching pools; upgrades to other school buildings, as recently as 2014, only increased the capacity of the systems but did not upgrade any technology, according to District Superintendent Lars Clemensen. He said none of the district’s buildings still uses a cesspool.

Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine has already started a push to change the future path of school regulation, demanding that the state relinquish its authority over wastewater standards at school properties. In a letter to the state commissioner of education, MaryEllen Elia, Mr. Romaine argued that the state bureaucracy was dropping the ball, as evidenced by the giant new Sachem East school building, which was not mandated to be connected to a sewage treatment plant already being operated by Brookhaven Town.

“We’re sitting right on top of the Ronkonkoma Moraine, and the state didn’t require the school to hook up to our sewage treatment plant,” Mr. Romaine said. “The [Suffolk County] Health Department would have made them do it. The State Education Department should be taken out of the equation. Wastewater management is an afterthought to them.”

Until regulatory changes are made, the only option for tackling the issue at schools may be to try to convince the districts to upgrade their septics on their own.

Mr. McAllister noted that there may be options for some school buildings beyond the costs of new on-site septics. Connecting to existing sewage treatment plants could make for easier and cheaper options to lessen the impacts of school septics.

Neither of the Sag Harbor School District buildings is connected to the village’s municipal sewer system or sewage treatment plant. Mr. McAllister also noted that the East Quogue Elementary School, which sits less than a half mile from the headwaters of Weesuck Creek, could potentially be connected to the sewage treatment facilities that are part of a sprawling golf course and residential development known as The Hills that has been proposed to Southampton Town. The company has offered to fund the installation of a separate nitrogen-reducing septic system at the school if a connection to the on-site sewage treatment plant on The Hills property isn’t feasible.

Much of the discussion about upgrading septics at schools stems from the situation at the Springs School in northern East Hampton Town. The school sits barely 100 feet from Pussy’s Pond, the narrow spring-fed creek at the headwaters of picturesque Accabonac Harbor—and its septic system is failing.

Scientists from the Cornell Cooperative Extension and East Hampton Town environmental officials have been monitoring water quality in Pussy’s Pond for several years, and finding elevated levels of nitrogen and ammonia in the water. The high nitrogen levels cannot be blamed entirely on the school, since sampling has also shown substantial influxes of nitrogen coming from groundwater flowing in from the very densely developed residential neighborhoods to the west of the pond as well. But the town’s natural resources director, Kim Shaw, said the presence of ammonia signaled to them that a plume of wastewater is emanating from somewhere nearby.

“It’s very short travel time, poor soils and shallow groundwater, so we’re looking at that neighborhood as a whole,” she said. “We’re going to install some additional monitoring wells … to figure out what the ammonia source is.”

School officials have said that they believe some of the connections between the school’s outflow pipes and the leaching rings they lead to may be broken. The school has had to have its system pumped out every eight to 10 days this year, and last month district officials agreed to hire engineers to do a full examination of the system as soon as classes ended so that repairs can be made before the new school year.

The district has already started talking with town officials about using the CPF to help it fund the installation of an advanced wastewater system for the building.

Barbara Dayton, the president of the Springs School Board, noted that the district is in the midst of planning an expansion of the school, which would include relocating and replacing the current septic system. She said the district has spoken with town officials about the options for a more advanced system than the septic tank and leaching pools system the state would allow.

“We want to be on top of this and we want to be good neighbors and be the forefront of any technology,” Ms. Dayton said. “But our district is more [financially] strapped than any other out here so it’s always a big question of how to pay for things. With this, if the town could help, that would be a godsend.”

State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr., one of the authors of the CPF bill, said that using the funding to entice a school district into upgrading its septics would be within the parameters of the CPF’s bylaws and that the decision of whether or not to do so would be up to the technical advisory committees that will choose which projects make the most sense.

East Hampton Town has already impaneled its advisory committee, which is poring over a host of water quality improvement projects, including the possibility of hooking up the Springs School to an advanced system.

“There certainly seems to be bang-for-the-buck potential there with the school,” said Chris Clapp, the chairman of the committee. “We essentially need them to come to us with project to review. We’re blessed to have these funds available and the Springs School has recognized that they have a problem and want to be part of the solution.”

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Clean water for in public schools? What a novel idea!
By even flow (801), East Hampton on Jun 27, 17 8:40 AM
This is a tremendously important news article that has pulled together highly relevant, and up-to-date information from many sources. Kudos, Mr. Wright. David Buda
By davbud (115), east hampton on Jun 27, 17 12:03 PM
How about we install solar electricity and solar hot water panels on the schools so that we're not polluting someone else's water by using fossil fuels flushed from the Earth through fracking.
By dfree (566), hampton bays on Jun 27, 17 2:22 PM