Two warnings issued by the this past week did not come as a surprise to Kevin McAllister, executive director of the nonprofit Peconic Baykeeper, who has been keeping a close eye on the Peconic and South Shore estuaries for years. McAllister said he has long advocated for laws that would go a long way toward preventing problems like those in the waters now.
McAllister, who has offices in Quogue, says the latest biotoxin, which affects filter-feeding shellfish, is a direct result of waste water, primarily waste water that funnels through residential and commercial cesspools, making its way into the groundwater, which feeds into the estuaries.
“These brown and red tides thrive on nutrients. Cesspools release these nutrients in the form of nitrogen into the ground water. This is a long-term problem,” said McAllister.
McAllister said that he has been advocating for new laws since last summer, when his organization released a report that addresses biotoxin.
He said biotoxin blooms does die off after a time and shellfish clean out freshwater, it doesn’t mean biotoxin won’t come back.
“This is a reoccurring theme, and it is showing up with more frequency and with greater damage potential. If we connect the dots, they all lead to waste water,” he said.
To remedy the issue, McAllister said new laws must be created to require state-of-the art cesspools for all new construction projects and land transfers. He also suggested that service plants be constructed in neighborhoods that 30 to 50 homes could tie into.
“There is cesspool technology that can lower the nitrogen released through waste water,” said McAllister. “I know this is challenging and that it is costly, but sometimes it needs to be done.”
And it needs to happen fast, said McAllister, who said if everyone replaced their cesspools today, a positive outcome would not be seen for years down the line.
The reason, McAllister said, is because ground water only travels between one to three feet per day. If a septic system is a half of a mile away from a tributary, it would take five years for the waste to get there.
McAllister says he has been shouting his message from the hilltops, speaking before officials in Southampton, East Hampton and Southold. He has also been before the Suffolk County Department of Health.
“The department of environmental conservation may say this is a natural occurrence, I say boloney. We are polluting our waters.”
McAllister’s words may not have fallen on death ears. Just last week, after the DEC’s warning was issued, announced a new proposal that will use $140 million from the county’s Assessment Stabilization Reserve Fund over the next ten years offset costs for new sewers throughout the county.
Levy said, “For years, we have recognized that sewers are key to economic growth, which is key to controlling people’s property taxes, and that sewers are essential to protecting our groundwater and our bays and waters.”
McAllister said Levy’s proposal looks positive and shows leadership in trying to address the issue.
“I am glad to see it,” he said.
McAllister said he hopes that other officials will follow suit and take a hard look at the issue.
“I know it has political ramifications, especially in an election year and in this economic climate, but we are going to keep digging ourselves deeper into a hole, if we don’t start addressing this now.”