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Feb 17, 2015 5:19 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Advocates Say Better Waste Controls Needed On Big Projects On East End

Feb 18, 2015 11:41 AM

The five East End towns are being asked to consider stringent new requirements for commercial and multifamily residential development septic flows, modeled after standards recently adopted in Brookhaven Town.

Water quality advocate Kevin McAllister has made a pitch to officials in Southampton and East Hampton towns asking that they mandate cutting-edge septic treatment systems on any new development or redevelopment projects that will produce between 1,000 and 30,000 gallons of wastewater daily—levels that would include most apartment complexes, restaurants, and multi-unit commercial or office buildings.

Currently, Suffolk County Health Department codes target septic controls to average levels of 10 milligrams of nitrogen per liter of wastewater, the level considered to be safe for drinking water. But scientists in recent years have determined that marine ecosystems require significantly lower levels, saying that nitrogen levels of just 0.5 milligrams per liter can be harmful to surface waters, where nitrogen feeds algae blooms that can carry toxins and rob marine organisms of oxygen or sunlight.

Most recently, water quality advocates like Mr. McAllister have said that average levels of 2 milligrams per liter or less should be the target if local bays are to recover.

Last summer, Brookhaven Town adopted a law targeting the watershed of the notoriously polluted Carmans River, which begins in Yaphank and feeds into the Great South Bay. It requires that all new developments and all existing septics from intermediate flow buildings be upgraded within 10 years to systems that release wastewater containing no more than 3 milligrams of nitrogen per liter.

Mr. McAllister, the founder of water quality advocacy group Defend H20 and the former Peconic Baykeeper, has said similar legislation should be brought to the East End. In conversation this week, he pointed to two recent approvals by Southampton Town: the Sandy Hollow Cove apartment complex and the redevelopment of the Canoe Place Inn along the banks of the Shinnecock Canal. The approvals for both projects included expensive, state-of-the-art sewage treatment systems. But those systems were required by the board as part of the approval of special zone changes; Mr. McAllister said he would prefer that they be codified for all developments, even if they comply with existing zoning.

“We should be requiring the best technologies, particularly for new developments,” Mr. McAllister, who is from East Quogue, said this week. “Put this into local law and move on to the next consideration.”

East Hampton Town Supervisor Larry Cantwell said he would like to see such requirements included in the recommendations from the town’s recent comprehensive wastewater study. “That report identified areas of concern in certain locations, like the south end of Lake Montauk and Three Mile Harbor,” he said. “This could be part of the program we’re interested in enacting.”

Southampton Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst said town officials have been looking at precisely such a requirement for more than a year, but that some issues remain.

“There are some questions we need to have answers to if we’re going to do it right, such as what does the standard need to be not only to stem the tide, so to speak, but to start reversing the nitrogen loading,” Ms. Throne-Holst said. “In the meantime, in the new revamp of the [planned development district] law, I’m asking that state-of-the-art water treatment no longer be considered part of community benefit but becomes a given, a requirement of every application.”

There have also been concerns about whether local municipalities can adopt septic requirements in their town codes that exceed those of the county. Mr. McAllister says that when he was the Peconic Baykeeper and working on the Carmans River plan with Brookhaven, attorneys for the organization presented case law that indicated that a local municipality could, in fact, impose more stringent requirements.

The Nature Conservancy has asked State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s office to issue a ruling on the question of the local authority over septic loads.

“In the larger approach to wastewater management, this would be a good start,” Mr. McAllister said. “Ultimately, we know now [that] our old standards are not good enough. What Brookhaven did was extremely positive—now the challenge is convincing the other towns to follow suit.”

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