Monday, March 12, 2007

Long Island Cesspools

Newsday has been writing at length yesterday and today about sewage issues on Long Island. Today’s story is about nitrogen in wastewater and its affect on local streams and on the Island’s aquifers. It’s worth a read, although I think today’s story is a bit sloppy in that it continually lumps cesspools with septic systems, and implies that the two are equally bad when it comes to contaminating groundwater. Maybe, maybe not. It is appalling though that Mastic is subdivided into quarter-acre lots (or smaller) and that they still use cesspools.


Anonymous Bryan said...

Tom,'s not just Mastic or Suffolk County. The first part of the Newsday two-parter in the print edition has a map that showed most of the North Shore in the Town of Oyster Bay as unsewered. While this area includes large estates (at least two acres), it includes areas like Sea Cliff that have old and established quarter-acre zoning with cesspools and septic systems, yet are within a mile of the Glen Cove STP. Some lots in Sea Cliff aren’t even one-eighth acre. As in Suffolk, sewers have been viewed by some as a catalyst for development; consequently, the lack of a sewer system or connection to one has been considered a good way to kill or downsize a proposed development by forcing the project to rely on on-site sanitation.

One issue that has come up recently is money that comes to the sewer district from hook-ups. In the case of Glen Cove, hook-ups from outside the city can be obtained for a premium price, generating revenue for Glen Cove (which happens to be having some fiscal problems). There are two proposed residential developments (100 units total, plus or minus, in addition to commercial) whose sewer connections have been given the green-light by Glen Cove. The sites are former industrial areas that are on the way to becoming housing developments. Meanwhile, existing homes in the area continue to rely on septic systems and cesspools.

People look at the issue of sewers from different angles and with different objectives, but it seems that a new look is required. What seemed reasonable in the past might not make sense now. For example, if Glen Cove's remaining sewer capacity were absorbed by the existing houses and business in the area that are currently unsewered, it could help to address the nitrogen problem in the nearby harbor and there might not be any capacity left for connections outside the city (i.e., no capacity to support the conversion of industrial site and brownfields to residential uses). Glen Cove would presumably reserve some capacity for continued development within its boundaries.

On the other hand, salt-water intrusion is a concern when the contribution of groundwater from septic systems and cesspools is removed. Finally, the Newsday articles don’t provide data on the relative contribution of cesspools to the problem in Mastic. As with Mastic, the North Shore has some egregious problems but, IMO, there is also a lack of data to quantify the problem except in very localized circumstances. As for LIS as a whole, the Long Island Sound Study cites the sewage treatment plants as the biggest contribution to nitrogen problem (presumably those plants that haven’t been upgraded). So where to make the investment? Upgrade all the sewage treatment plants and then tackle the locale sewage problems or try and do both at the same time?

9:52 AM  
Blogger Tom Andersen said...

Thanks, Bryan. I’m hampered in this discussion because I know very little about how developed the north shore of Long Island is, although I’m fairly certain that a lot of people consider parts of it to be overdeveloped.

I do know that septic systems are a perfectly fine way to treat wastewater, assuming they are properly maintained and that there is enough land to absorb the waste. In northern Westchester there are communities – beautiful, old traditional neighborhood communities built on the commuter rail line – where the lots are so small and the septic systems so overburdened that they need to be pumped out three times a year. That those communities happen to be on the banks of New York City reservoirs is a major issue. The sewer issue is used up here, too, as a way to stop development. It reminds of something a land use lawyer once told me: When it comes to development, there are two things nobody likes: sprawl and density.

Cesspools and faulty septic systems are clearly a contributor to Long Island Sound’s nitrogen problem, but they’re only a small contributor. Nevertheless hypoxia in the main part of the Sound isn’t the Sound’s only environmental issue. Cesspools and septic systems can over-enrichment tributaries and harbors, and of course bacteria can force the closure of beaches and shellfish beds. My opinion, for what it’s worth, is that cesspools should be outlawed. We should also figure out what the appropriate density for septic systems is and start to plan for sewers in places that are too dense. Then too, we should stop global warming and end world hunger. The chances of those things happening are about the same.

12:58 PM  

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