New Suffolk Law Bans Outmoded Cesspools

Suffolk County legislation signed into law by County Executive Steve Bellone on Dec. 21 will ban the installation of cesspools that contribute to nitrogen pollution in ground and surface waters and move businesses toward nitrogen-removing septic systems. 

While traditional cesspools have been prohibited in the county since 1973, replacing them in kind has until now been allowed. The new law will prohibit that as of July 2019.

Businesses at commercial properties where a change of use, expansion, or reconstruction is proposed will no longer be allowed to retain “grandfathered” permits allowing wastewater flow that exceeds current limits. In most instances, businesses will be required to install new septic systems that strip effluent of nitrogen. 

Under the new law, beginning on July 1, 2018, contractors must notify the Suffolk Department of Health Services of all pumping and replacements or retrofits of septic tanks, innovative/alternative onsite wastewater treatment systems, cesspools, grease traps, and leaching structures.

Beginning in July 2019, a Health Department permit will be required to replace or retrofit an existing cesspool or individual sewage system. 

According to a press release, more than 360,000 residences in Suffolk have “outdated cesspools and septic systems that do not properly treat waste or remove nitrogen.”

The changes, along with another code revision placing the regulation of onsite wastewater treatment systems under the health department, and the establishment of a county grant and loan program for septic system improvements, are part of the county executive’s wide-ranging Reclaim Our Water initiative, designed to reduce nitrogen in groundwater, bays, and estuaries. 

The legislation is a result of a year’s work and discussion by a group that included several Suffolk County legislators, including Bridget Fleming, who represents the East End, as well as representatives of the building industry, environmental groups, and the health department. 

The final bill was co-sponsored by County Executive Bellone, Legislator Fleming, and Legislator Kara Hahn.

  In a press release, officials noted that Great South Bay once produced more than half the clams eaten in the United States. The clam harvest there has fallen by 93 percent over the past several decades, destroying an industry. At the same time, brown tide and algal blooms have negatively impacted the Peconic Bay and its scallops, and nitrogen from sewage systems and cesspools has been identified as “the primary culprit,” according to the release.

“Unless we get a handle on the pollution that’s coming from the woefully outdated septic systems throughout our communities, we will see continuing and increasing devastating effects on the health, property values, and the economy that supports Suffolk County families,” Ms. Fleming said in the release.

“It is a rare occurrence when the business and environmental communities agree on a proposal to amend any regulation, but that is exactly what happened in this instance. As I have said many times, nitrogen is public water quality-enemy number one. This legislation is another important step forward in the battle to reverse decades of nitrogen pollution,” Mr. Bellone said in the release.