Debate Focus of Wastewater Plan

Engineers suggest a look at private septic systems, as well as town plant
East Hampton Town’s scavenger waste treatment facility (seen above in August) has been operating only as a wastewater transfer station since early this year. Matthew Sprung

    Officials in East Hampton Town took another tentative step recently toward tackling the problem of septic waste and its pollution potential after receiving proposals from four consulting firms that could help develop a comprehensive wastewater management plan for the town.
    The companies not only submitted information on their qualifications — all found to be sufficient for the project — but each provided an outline of how they would address three key areas: development of an overall plan for dealing with wastewater in the town, with an eye toward protecting the environment and meeting regulatory mandates; the condition and future of the town’s aging scavenger waste treatment plant, and setting up a program of ongoing water quality monitoring to be sure that ground and surface water quality is maintained.
    A political standoff over the last two years about what to do with the waste treatment plant, which needs extensive upgrades to meet current environmental standards, led to a shutdown of the plant, except as a waste-transfer station, and continuing arguments, the latest of which took place at two recent town board meetings.
    After receiving the preliminary responses from engineers, the board must determine exactly what tasks it would like a consultant to undertake and issue a formal request for proposals from companies that could be hired for the job.
    The details provided by engineers in their initial responses as to what areas and options should be explored could guide the content of the request, which the board has asked town planning and natural resources staff to develop for its review.
    Supervisor Bill Wilkinson and Councilwoman Theresa Quigley, who both opposed the development of a comprehensive wastewater management plan but were overruled by the other three members of the board, took issue with the inclusion, in all of the companies’ proposals, of plans to assess the functioning of the individual septic systems that process the wastewater on properties throughout the town, which does not have any centralized sewer systems.
    But Kim Shaw, the town’s director of natural resources, informed them at a Dec. 11 town board meeting that the town code requires an inspection by the town, at least every three years, of every on-site wastewater disposal system and sewage treatment plant.
    In addition, she said, programs such as the federal Municipal Separate Storm Sewer Systems require the town to address the impacts of septic systems.
    The town has an estimated 20,000 individual septic systems, according to its water resources management plan. Their functioning, all of the qualified engineers said in their proposals, is central to environmental protection.
    “Bacterial contamination of surface water from failing on-site septic systems and cesspools remains an important consideration in the development of a wastewater management plan for the town,” the proposal from P.W. Grosser Consulting of Bohemia said.
    “Meeting regulatory requirements” that limit the amount of nitrogen — which is generated by waste — that can be discharged into water bodies “will soon be difficult,” according to the proposal from Cameron Engineering, a firm already acting for the town as a consultant on the scavenger waste treatment plant. Septic systems may already be adversely affecting local waters such as Three Mile, Accabonac, and Northwest Harbors, Napeague Bay, and Lake Montauk, it said.
    The town has not been doing the mandated septic system inspections, Mr. Wilkinson pointed out at the Dec. 11 meeting. “We actually have to start figuring out how to do it,” Ms. Shaw told him. “It is a daunting responsibility.”
    However, she said, several of the consultants outlined in their proposals how such a process could begin.
    For instance, several said, higher-priority, more environmentally sensitive areas could be identified and systems developed to provide more advanced wastewater treatment than typical septic systems do.
    A look at septic pump-out records and data compiled by agencies such as the United States Geological Survey, the Suffolk County Water Authority, and the County Health Department could be a place to start, H2M Architects and Engineers of Melville said in its proposal.
    Ms. Quigley suggested last week that the board seek separate formal proposals from consultants regarding what to do about the scavenger waste treatment plant and what to do about wastewater management overall, which could include an analysis of the use of individual septic systems. “I suspect the issue of wastewater management is going to be far more complex than the issue of scavenger waste, and I think we need to deal with them separately,” she said.
    But Councilwoman Sylvia Overby, who was among the three-member majority that overrode the objections of Mr. Wilkinson and Ms. Quigley to move ahead with development of an overall plan before making final decisions on what to do about the treatment plant, said that the two issues are inextricably linked.
    Whatever decisions are made about how to deal with the septic waste generated by individual properties — working with homeowners to get systems upgraded, for instance, or establishing small neighborhood treatment “plants” in sensitive areas, perhaps, using new technologies — will dictate what sort of municipal waste treatment plant, or transfer station, is necessary, she said.
    “I think this is an attempt from the start to take something which is an isolated facility and turn it into something it’s not,” Ms. Quigley said to her. “And we’re going to have to figure out what we’re going to do with our septic.”
    Mr. Wilkinson said that the proposals had “changed the focus completely” from looking at the scavenger waste plant to looking at individual septic systems.
    “Scavenger waste is a component and aging septic systems are a component,” Ms. Overby said. No matter what is suggested by the experts, she said, “the town has to decide how far to go, and in what phases.”
    “This issue started with scavenger waste, and now we’re at people’s personal properties,” Ms. Quigley said. “I’m just trying to get out to the public that that’s what’s happening.”
    “Because every one of the proposals mandates that people upgrade their septic systems,” she said. “And that means individual property owners are bearing the cost.”
    “We’re not necessarily going to be saying that,” Ms. Overby said. “It’s not about coming to somebody’s house and being the septic police.” The overall goal, she said, would be to ensure that drinking and surface waters remain clean. Should septic system upgrades be deemed critical to that end, she said, the town could discuss ways to reach that goal, such as providing grants to homeowners, as a county program currently does, she said.
    Each of the town’s potential consultants listed options that could be explored, such as financing a wastewater management district or instituting tax credits, rebates, refunds, or penalties to encourage sustainable practices.
    “Failing septic systems and improper stormwater management can cause bacterial-pathogenic contamination of water bodies,” the professionals wrote in a proposal submitted by Lombardo Associates of Ronkonkoma, the FPM Group, and the Woods Hole Group, along with Christopher Gobler, a Stony Brook Southampton professor.
    Mr. Wilkinson said on Dec. 11 that he opposes asking consultants to include any possible “audits” of individual septic systems in their final proposals.
    “I would like to know what regulates us here,” Mr. Wilkinson said at that meeting. “I’m just trying to figure out, what are we required to do by the [federal Environmental Protection Agency] or by the [State Department of Environmental Conservation] . . . as far as scavenger waste, as far as individual septic systems.”
    At the board’s meeting last week, he again reviewed the history of the board’s discussions on the wastewater treatment plant. The previous board had voted unanimously to seek proposals to privatize it, but, after a proposal came in and the board’s membership had changed in early 2010, three members overruled Mr. Wilkinson and Ms. Quigley’s desire to accept the deal offered by the single company that expressed interest in taking over the plant. The idea of doing some comprehensive planning for future wastewater management then took shape, over the minority’s objections.
    “From the start,” Mr. Wilkinson said last week, the town wasn’t setting out to do “long-range planning.”
    “I thought we should go on the outside to recruit some competence,” he said. “That now . . . has become a component of something else.”
    Ms. Shaw said on Dec. 11 that each of the four responding consultants had “really nailed it” in terms of looking at “creative solutions and innovative technologies.”
    Though the scope of what the town will ask a consultant to do remains undetermined, the cost of work outlined in the proposals by the four companies ranged from $108,750, which excluded ongoing water quality monitoring, to $350,000.