Letters to the Editor: Nitrogen 08.17.17

Our readers' comments

Result in a ‘Patchwork’

East Hampton

August 11, 2017

Dear David,

Your editorial “Enthusiasm Outpaces the Science on Water Plan” (Aug. 10) is so correct, I wish I had written it myself. 

Your point about defining both the problem with water quality and the successful outcomes should be the first step. This is Science 101. This is why the plan I helped author with the East Hampton Town Republicans begins by finding the problem: Those systems that have actually failed and which are close to one of the town’s water bodies would be the first to be dealt with. In effect, this would be the science behind the cause-and-effect relationship that you pointed out was missing in the town’s program. 

You further pointed out that the rebate program will draw money from the community preservation fund and will result in a “patchwork” with “very little to show for all the expense.” This is exactly why our plan does not use community preservation fund money. 

Critics of our plan point out that it relies on the homeowner to pay for septic upgrades for systems that are proven scientifically to have failed. Yes, this is essentially true. The cost might be mitigated by the possibility of a 25 percent grant from the State Environmental Facilities Corporation, and the replacement could be financed by a loan payable over 30 years at approximately a 1 percent interest rate — that comes out to be $36 to $48 per month, a lot less than your cable television bill. 

I would ask our critics why not have the homeowner pay for a homeowner’s failed, or in some cases nonexistent system? Is a failed septic system the responsibility and the liability of the homeowner or a fund of taxpayer money generated from real estate sales? Why use taxpayer money that was originally intended to buy land and keep it open space? There is at least one 30-acre tract of land in Amagansett valued between $20 million and $40 million that, if purchased by the town, could maintain the charm of that hamlet and do more for water quality than the “patchwork.” 

This is so basic that even my 7-month-old puppy, Dozer, gets it. Your readers can see my ad in this week’s edition of The Star. The way I see it, David, you are asking the same question, “What’s in your water?”




Mr. Giardina is a candidate for East Hampton Town Board. Ed.

Three Issues


August 11, 2017

Dear David,

As an estuarine ecologist who has studied pollution, I must disagree with some of your editorial statements (“Enthusiasm outpaces the science on water plan”) claiming the town is taking action before enough science is available. There are three issues here. 

1. Is nitrogen the cause of the problem? You say it is “an article of faith that nitrogen is the culprit” in undesired changes. It is not an issue of faith but 40 years’ worth of science and thousands of research articles, which have shown that in marine and estuarine systems, nitrogen is the primary cause of nutrient pollution or “eutrophication.” Phosphorus may play a small role. It should not be necessary to get “empirical evidence” to demonstrate this for every estuary experiencing the problems.

2. Are septic tanks the main source? Studies by Chris Gobler of Stony Brook and other scientists contracted by the town have indicated that this is indeed the case. About 20 years ago I learned that groundwater from septic tanks was the main source of eutrophication in Cape Cod bays and thought how lucky we were to not have it here on the East End, since we are so similar to Cape Cod. Well, it has finally caught up to us. (Another local cause is runoff from fertilized lawns and agricultural fields, and it would be excellent if people were to reduce or stop their use of these fertilizers.) 

3. Will the new septic systems remove the nitrogen properly? I have no expertise on this, but can only assume that the town officials and E.P.A. or whoever else has tested them have found that they do work well.

One unfortunate outcome of having septic systems and groundwater as the principal source of the pollution, is that groundwater moves very slowly, and the nitrogen-laden water takes decades before it all reaches our bays and estuaries. So after reductions in input are made, improvement of the water bodies will happen very slowly. You say that 5 or 10 years from now we might see continued degradation and finally realize that the plan did not work. No. Because groundwater moves so slowly, we will not be able to see improvements that soon, no matter what we do. It will take a few more decades. 

If we were to follow your advice and conduct additional site-specific studies for more years before acting, it will add even further delay to this slow recovery.


Professor Emerita

Rutgers University