The Peconic Baykeeper organization has asked the New York Department of Environmental Conservation to reduce nitrogenous water pollution through more stringent septic discharge standards and has threatened a federal lawsuit if it does not respond.
The request, made on Sept. 17, seeks modifications to state pollutant discharge elimination systems, known as SPEDES, permits for sewage treatment and septic systems. The permits, said Kevin McAllister, the director of the Peconic Baykeeper, fall under the federal Clean Water Act, which was passed in 1972.
“We’ve found an atrocious record of violations relative to levels of nitrogen that are coming out of these systems. They’re excessively high in most cases,” Mr. McAllister said, citing Three Mile Harbor in East Hampton and Lake Montauk, and Fort Pond in Montauk, among the impaired water bodies.
The request was also addressed to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s regional administrator, Judith A. Enck, and the commissioner of the Suffolk Department of Health Services.
“We’ve got to start regulating for ecological standards, Mr. McCallister said. “The noncompliance is egregious. There are wholesale violations that are going unchecked. Where is the enforcement? It falls on the D.E.C. or the county, and they’re both failing us miserably.”
The state Department of Environmental Conservation is legally obligated to respond to the Baykeeper request, Mr. McAllister said. “It they don’t, they are in violation as assigned to them by the federal government and Suffolk County. They better respond to this petition in a meaningful way. If they don’t our next step is a lawsuit.”
The petition will undergo a thorough review, said Lori Severino, the D.E.C.’s press officer. She would not comment on specific elements. “D.E.C. does not have detailed empirical data indicating what impacts either the subsurface discharge systems, or the additional regulatory requirements sought by Baykeeper, would have on nitrogen levels in the many estuarine water bodies surrounding Long Island,” Ms. Severino wrote in an e-mail.
The county’s director of planning, Sarah Landsdale, agreed that the county’s water systems are under pressure. In an e-mail, Ms. Landsdale wrote, “We are reviewing the data that came out of last year’s Groundwater Management Plan and along with several sewage treatment studies currently being conducted are moving toward implementation of both stronger policies and infrastructure improvements.”
Bob DeLuca, president of Group for the East End, applauded Mr. McAllister’s efforts. “Kevin is connecting the dots,” said Mr. DeLuca. “It’s a good move to put the state on notice that at some point the bill comes due. There are a lot of implications for that, economic and environmental.”
Mr. DeLuca said he thought that a statewide legislative approach is necessary for action on water quality, and that time is of the essence. “There’s going to have be an imperative for New York State to deal with nitrogen levels. The standards we have for drinking water may be okay, but they’re not for surface waters. The amount of degradation you have to clean continues to go up.”
“If we start tomorrow, it’s going to take a while. We don’t need any more algal blooms or fish kills. As soon as we can stop that, there’s an economic and environmental benefit,” Mr. DeLuca said.
Mr. McAllister warned that the situation is urgent and procrastination on the state and county levels may be ruinous to the environment and local economy alike.
“Enough kicking the can down the road,” he said. “Look at East Hampton’s economy: it’s based on beaches and water. For those that say the costs are prohibitive, when pollution reaches a level where it threatens people — a red tide, where you cannot eat the shellfish, or bacterial levels shutting down beaches — the cost factor goes out the window. We’re going to enforce this. If we have to get into a courtroom to make everyone understand this, we will do so.”