Editorial: Septic Upgrade Process Must Be Improved

It’s official — with Governor Kathy Hochul’s approval in late May, Suffolk County voters will get to weigh in this November on a ballot proposition allowing the county to charge a 1/8 percent sales tax to be used toward septic upgrade initiatives.

This potential revenue source, if approved by voters, will only be a game changer for East End communities if the process for getting approvals for and installing innovative on-site septic systems is improved.

Septic system installers, wise to the flush of cash flowing into county and town septic improvement programs, have in recent years begun to charge what this inflated market will bear, which is often far more than the rosy picture painted for homeowners when they initially apply for grant funding to upgrade their septic systems.

Site-specific issues like a high water table, even on properties not adjacent to the water, can add thousands to the cost of a project, as installers charge for dewatering during construction, even if it’s not necessary, and designs call for costly pressurized shallow drainfields to dissipate the wastewater. The removal of large trees and accommodations of other site conditions can also be a trade-off that homeowners are unwilling to make.

Many homeowners don’t learn of these extra costs until they’ve already spent thousands of dollars of their own money on engineering plans, putting them in a place where they’re stuck with either paying for a set of plans they won’t use or biting the bullet and paying out of pocket for the cost overruns. 

This might seem to just be the cost of doing business for developers doing massive renovations or building new houses, but most of the homes that would benefit from modernized septic systems are on small lots, in modest communities built in the 1950s, many of which don’t even have septic tanks, within the watershed of the western Peconic Estuary system. This section of the bay is already prone to impairment due to a lack of tidal flushing when compared with the more open waterways farther east.

The modernizing of our septic infrastructure on the East End is an environmental justice issue, and the key to making it environmentally sound policy is to also make it affordable for people of modest means. It would be in everyone’s best interest for those promoting modern septic systems to thoroughly understand and eliminate those choke points that have prevented more people from taking advantage of the grant funding available to fix this regional problem.

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