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Feb 27, 2014 3:26 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Southampton Town, County And Scientists Pitch East End Clean Water Tech Hub On East End

Mar 3, 2014 12:04 PM

Officials from Southampton Town, Suffolk County and Stony Brook University made a personal pitch to Governor Andrew Cuomo last week, asking for help in making the East End a hub for the study, development and manufacture of clean-water technology, primarily with regard to household septics, for decades to come.

Staff from Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst’s office, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone and Stony Brook University professor Christopher Gobler, Ph.D., met with the governor at his New York City offices last Thursday, February 27, to present him with their proposal. Their plan is to rally state resources behind an initiative that spurs discussion and research of new water quality protection technology, as well as attract private sector manufacturers to the East End.

“We have a real problem, but a shortage of solutions, and we need to be doing a better job of putting our heads together to come up with new ideas,” said Jennifer Garvey, Ms. Throne-Holst’s deputy chief of staff, whom the supervisor credited as “the brainchild” of the proposal pitched to the governor. “We have all these state resources and these fabulous institutions—Stony Brook, BNL [Brookhaven National Laboratory]—we need to get everybody to come together and see that there are specific technologies that need to be developed in short order, and how we can bring that to fruition.”

It has been three years since scientists from Stony Brook University, led by Dr. Gobler, issued a series of reports that drew concrete connections between the byproducts of human waste—primarily nitrogen—seeping out of failing or ineffective residential septic systems and deepening water quality problems, as made evident by the emergence and spread of destructive algae blooms in local bays.

The reports put the spotlight on the need to reduce the amount of nitrogen being released into the ground from residential developments and spurred a broadening discussion of ways to address the problem. Southampton Town has been at the forefront of the effort locally, pressing for a regional approach to finding solutions for the shared threat and presented the idea of a technology hub to Suffolk County officials last summer.

The response from Mr. Bellone was strong and Ms. Throne-Holst said on Friday that Governor Cuomo was equally as understanding of the subtleties of the threat posed, as well as the need for “big science,” and big money, in order to tackle the problem.

“The governor clearly recognized the issue that we’re having on Long Island and that is facing the municipalities here,” Ms. Throne-Holst said on Friday. “There is a clear grasp that we need to have a comprehensive understanding of what the problem is, what the source of it is, and start laying plans for how to remediate it.

“There are many resources under the purview of the state ... that need to be involved in this,” she continued. “Yesterday was one of the first steps in that direction.”

The weight the state could put behind the issue could range from research grants for scientists to regulatory changes to allow new technologies to advance rapidly to tax incentives for businesses to create new research and manufacturing facilities on the East End.

The main obstacle to a broad solution thus far has been that the septic collection and treatment technology currently available is limited, and those systems that approach the sort of steep nitrogen reductions seen as necessary across a wide region are exceedingly expensive—costing as much as $30,000 per property.

“The real key is that a solution is not a solution until it is affordable,” Ms. Garvey said.

The first part of their vision is a rallying of resources behind a scientific incubator to study and develop methods of reducing the amount of nitrogen that is released into the environment from residential waste. In the longer term, the plan would then be to organize and incentivize private sector development of manufacturing facilities around the East End.

The private sector, on a national level, has thus far not been driven to put high levels of resources toward technological advancements in the field, Ms. Garvey said, because the market for such systems is so fragmented by regional concerns, and stringent and often diverging regulations.

“There is real opportunity in this because, oddly, there is this technology sector that is so underfunded and so poorly tended to,” Ms. Garvey said. “The private sector hasn’t seen a compelling market to try to capture. The markets are small and highly regulated, and regulated differently in different areas, it’s hard for them to see the profit.

“If we could create an area where there is ... a real market for this technology, the private sector could take over,” she continued. “There are 30 million of these [outdated septic] systems in America.”

Ms. Throne-Holst acknowledged that the effort is a crusade, not a blitzkrieg, and each step in the process will likely take many months, or even years, despite the obvious urgency.

“There is a recognition that time is of the essence,” she said. “We’ve got the ball rolling. Stay tuned.”

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