To Ease Pain of Septic Overhauls

Grants, loans would eliminate homeowners’ up-front costs, county exec says
Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone has been traveling the county this week promote a proposal to establish a grant and loan program to help homeowners through out the county replace antiquated septic systems with new ones that remove nitrogen, which has been identified as a major cause of surface and groundwater pollution. David E. Rattray

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone has been traveling the county this week promoting a proposal to establish a grant and loan program to help homeowners through out the county replace antiquated septic systems with new ones that remove nitrogen, which has been identified as a major cause of surface and groundwater pollution.

The proposal was the subject of a town hall meeting in Flanders on Monday night. During a visit to The Star’s office prior to Monday’s meeting, Mr. Bellone said that solving, rather than just managing, water quality issues was on his agenda upon taking office, but that it took several years to address the county’s financial difficulties, a prerequisite.

County Health Department records show that there are 360,000 residences throughout Suffolk using individual septic systems that do not properly treat wastewater to remove nitrogen.

Rather than promote large-scale or neighborhood sewering systems, a costly approach and one that might not gain public approval, after a corruption debacle involving the Southwest Sewer District years ago, Mr. Bellone said that he had concluded that the septic waste pollution problem would be best tackled one residence at a time.

But, he said, “How do you motivate a homeowner to do something that benefits the region but does not affect them individually?” A homeowner’s traditional septic system could be working just fine for the household but still be contributing to the overall problem of water pollution.

“You are dealing with something that most people have never thought about. For a lot of people it’s out of sight, out of mind,” he said.

In-kind replacement of traditional cesspool or septic systems, which do not eliminate nitrogen, costs an estimated $6,000 to $8,000, while the cost of an advanced technology system could be between $14,500 and $17,500, according to the county.

“We want to get more systems in the ground,” Mr. Bellone said. “If the benefit is to the region as a whole, then it really is time to subsidize that cost,” said Mr. Bellone. “It still comes down to a house-by-house, pocketbook issue. I want it to be workable and affordable to the average homeowner.”

Under his proposed program, which was the subject of a hearing on Tuesday and is expected to be voted on by the County Legislature next month, homeowners could receive grants of up to $11,000 and be offered a 15-year low-cost financing plan through Bridgehampton National Bank to cover the remainder of the cost of a new septic system.

“The idea is that we wanted to have no up-front cost for the homeowner,” Mr. Bellone said.

The county would provide $2 million annually through 2021 from a county reserve fund. Approximately 400 participants could be accommodated in the initial program, but with additional funding from New York State, which Mr. Bellone anticipates, the number of houses getting new septic systems could rise to 5,000 or 6,000. 

In the future, Mr. Bellone said he believes the prices of new-technology systems will drop, allowing subsidies to stretch. Nonetheless, an ongoing source of funding for the grant program is needed — perhaps a surcharge on water bills, he said. A proposal such as that would be put to county voters in a referendum.

“I am open to any way to do this,” Mr. Bellone said.

Should there be more applicants than can be accommodated in the first phase of the program, Mr. Bellone said that those who live in “priority areas” — environmentally sensitive areas, such as those near bays or surface waters — would be chosen.

If the program is approved by the legislature, the county will begin accepting applications from property owners in July.

“We’re taking a very aggressive, deliberate approach,” said Mr. Bellone — pushing forward with the development and use of new, non-polluting septic waste systems, while acting to insure that their success is proven before promoting their widespread use.

Mr. Bellone said he went on a “septic tour” of areas along the East Coast facing challenges similar to those in Suffolk, then approached industry leaders to discuss the design and implementation of new-technology septic systems that could eliminate or minimize the amount of nitrogen released into the environment. At the same time, Mr. Bellone said, efforts were made to include and educate the contractors who would be installing and servicing those systems.

A pilot program, through which homeowners willing to have new, free septic systems installed were chosen by lottery, has been under way to test several types of new systems by different manufacturers.

“It’s been very positive,” the county executive said. Enough data has been collected to give preliminary approval to three systems so far, but final approval, which would allow the Health Department to issue permits for the installation of those systems, could take a year, Mr. Bellone said.

It is important that any new systems be fully tested and proven effective before the county approves them for general use, he said, or considers a mandate requiring new septic systems.

In East Hampton Town, where a rebate program to spur the installation of advanced technology septic systems is being designed, officials have included a mandate for their use in a draft law that imposes the requirement upon the construction of a new building or in the case of a substantial reconstruction.  The law also outlines a rebate program that could cover the entire cost of a nitrogen-reducing septic installation in high-priority areas, or a substantial amount of the cost, according to income-based eligibility guidelines. The funding would come from the 20-percent portion of the community preservation fund that voters recently authorized for use on water quality initiatives.

Monday’s meeting was the first of several scheduled by Mr. Bellone to provide information about the septic system program, a part of his “Reclaim Our Water” initiative. Another meeting will be held tonight at Port Jefferson Town Hall, followed by a May 8 session at the Huntington Public Library and a May 12 meeting at Centereach Town Hall.

“This is a problem that has built up over generations,” said Mr. Bellone on Monday. The fix won’t be immediate, he said. “I think that we can fix it in a generation.”

With Reporting by David Rattray