Suffolk County Septic Systems Polluting Water Supply


Kevin McAllister stands on the dock at Forge River Marina in Mastic and points south, across the cold waters, to the 3.2-mile long tributary’s mouth, where it empties into Moriches Bay.

The 52-year-old knows these waters well. He grew up nearby, crabbing and water-skiing here throughout his youth. McAllister shifts his sights, motioning to the Forge’s muddy banks, which quickly collapse into a densely packed wall of residential waterfront homes. A senior housing complex occupies the opposite side, replacing land that had been used for nearly 100 years as a duck farm.

For McAllister, of the Quogue-based nonprofit Peconic Baykeeper, this recent visit with two Press reporters is his equivalent of returning to the scene of a horrific crime that changed the course of his work. He recalls the discovery he made here in June 2005 while on a boat tour of the river with two other reporters.

“All of a sudden I started seeing kind of a chalky color to the water,” he says. “It was chalky white, just didn’t look right. So I got deeper in and then all of a sudden you can smell some odors… We started to see the dead fish on the surface. Then up and around this area there was actually eels—you could see them, little juvenile eels, American eel—popping up to the surface, like snorkels.

“What the fish were trying to do, plus the crabs, they were scurrying out—there were blue crab up on the banks, on both sides, trying to get out of the water—because there was no oxygen,” continues McAllister. “It was going to kill them if they stayed in, and for that matter, they weren’t going to survive anyway, coming out.”

The scene bore the classic symptoms of chronic algal bloom, explains McAllister—rapid outbreaks of microscopic algae that deplete the host water body of oxygen, decimate marine life, and in some species, produce toxins lethal to humans. According to environmental experts, such explosions are triggered by excessive nitrogen, in the form of nitrates. A major source of those high levels of nitrogen, they say, is the human waste continuously discharged into Long Island’s groundwater through septic tanks and cesspool systems, eventually joining the surface water. By “groundwater,” they mean the underground aquifers Long Island’s 2.8 million residents uniquely live atop and shower, wash and drink from.

Yes, Suffolk County residents are drinking the same water they flush their toilets into.

The Forge River is not the only casualty. Its fate is representative of the ongoing deterioration and demise of not only LI’s drinking water supply, but dozens of other water bodies across both Nassau and Suffolk.

Most alarming to many environmentalists and scientists interviewed for this story were the findings of a more than 400-page draft of the soon-to-be-released final Suffolk County Comprehensive Water Resources Management Plan, the culmination of years of analysis by the county’s Department of Health Services, Planning Department, Department of Public Works and Water Authority, along with consultants and more than three dozen engineers and water quality specialists. Such a study had not been conducted since 1987.

Among its discoveries: Nitrogen concentrations are increasing exponentially in all three LI aquifers—the Lloyd, Upper Glacial and Magothy—rising 40 percent and 200 percent, respectively, in the latter two. Volatile organic compounds, pesticides and other contaminants are also increasing their presence in our drinking water supply, and new pollutants, such as pharmaceuticals and personal care products (PPCPs), have now also been detected.

Although each of these are cause for alarm and warrant immediate remedial actions and accountability in their own respect, the battle over nitrogen contamination is currently front and center in the ongoing water wars of Suffolk, where only slightly more than one-quarter of its 1.7 million population has the benefit of community-sewage disposal systems and thus, hundreds of thousands of residents utilize instead approximately 400,000 cesspools and septic tanks buried in their front or back yards for waste and wastewater disposal, providing a constant, daily supply of fresh contaminants for the drinking water supply.

“The same contaminants that affect drinking water can adversely affect surface waters,” a Suffolk health department spokesperson tells the Press. “However, the single-biggest regional problem is nitrogen inputs to surface waters from groundwater.”

EPA documents examined by the Press reveal that some privately run wastewater treatment systems in Suffolk had been repeatedly discharging nitrogen levels that exceeded the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s mandated standard for years. There currently exists no set plan to require the hundreds of thousands of antiquated cesspools and septic tanks buried throughout Suffolk to be upgraded or retrofitted to the best possible technology available. There also exists no singular, Island-wide regulatory agency charged with overseeing and actively enforcing the protection of LI’s drinking water.

Thus, the pollution and consequential contamination of the regional drinking water supply and its aesthetically and economically vital waterways continue to increase.

“The Forge River is the poster child for nutrient pollution from wastewater,” says McAllister. “Ultimately, this is just an example of what our waterways can be if we’re not managing for the wastewater influences.”