Nassau septic system grants aim to reduce nitrogen pollution

Toby Pellicci was one of the first 100 homeowners to participate in a Nassau County program that awards grants of up to $20,000 to replace old septic tanks and cesspools with a more modern septic system that reduces the amount of nitrogen released into Long Island’s water supply arrives.

Pellicci, 57, of Bayville, had the system installed last year and said the county reimbursed her for the cost.

“It’s just better all around,” Pellicci said. “I would rather have a better environment for my children in the future.”

According to the Nassau Soil and Water Conservation District, the county’s 100th installation of nitrogen-reducing equipment took place last month, with the majority of installations occurring in the town of Oyster Bay.

The program, which began in 2021 and had paid out $4.2 million in grants as of early November, is called the Septic Environmental Program to Improve Cleanliness (SEPTIC). A similar program started in Suffolk County in 2017.

Olivia Cunningham, a conservation technician for the Soil and Water Conservation District who helps manage Nassau’s septic tank replacement program, said more than 40,000 homes on the North Shore have traditional septic tanks or septic tanks.

A septic tank collects waste from toilets and drains before distributing the liquids into a leach field where bacteria filter the wastewater. A cesspit is a pit, typically lined with concrete, that receives waste but does not filter it. Both release nitrogen, a pollution that causes deteriorating water quality, toxic algae blooms and fish deaths, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The more advanced equipment, known as an innovative/alternative septic system, is designed to reduce the 40 pounds of nitrogen annually that the average residential sewer system emits.

According to the Long Island Sound Study, a collaboration of government agencies and groups dedicated to protecting the sound, the systems can reduce this discharge by up to 70%.

“Sewage treatment plants and aging cesspools are one of the main reasons for high nitrogen levels in our local waterways, and on Long Island we are at the top of our watershed, so it is really important that we reduce nitrogen input into our environment,” Cunningham said.

Records show Oyster Bay Cove mandated nitrogen-reducing systems for new construction and major home improvements earlier this year.

The community was the first in the county to adopt the rule, according to Maxwell Tetrault, water quality coordinator for the nonprofits Nature Conservancy and North Shore Land Alliance, which volunteer to help homeowners obtain grants for the wastewater treatment plant.

East Hills has since passed similar laws, said village building inspector Tom Murphy.

Derek Betts, district manager for the Soil and Water Conservation District, said there is now about $8 million in funding available for Nassau’s grant program.

As for the future, Cunningham said the district released a plan last year that calls for 2,000 installations by 2032 with a minimum funding of $40 million.

The plan is “dependent on a funding contribution from Nassau County in addition to existing and future state and federal funding sources,” the document states. Cunningham said those funding sources are not secured.

A spokesman for County Executive Bruce Blakeman did not immediately comment on the funding Thursday.

Industry officials who work with wastewater systems say obstacles remain when it comes to wider adoption of nitrogen-reducing technology locally.

Salvatore Motta, co-owner of Islandia-based Discount Cesspool & Drain Inc., said complex permit requirements are a barrier to installation.

“The process is so long and arduous that some homeowners don’t want to do it,” he added.

Tetrault echoed this sentiment.

“Every little village here, of which there are many, has different regulations, different permit requirements. And that’s something that really throws a wrench into streamlining the process,” he said.

Joseph Ostapiuk covers the town of Oyster Bay and the town of Glen Cove. He joined Newsday in 2023 after spending more than six years at the Staten Island Advance/

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