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Approval of a Suffolk County ballot referendum on septic upgrades stalls

Sabrina Garone
Wetlands in Bellport that feed into the Great South Bay.

The Suffolk County Legislature voted, along party lines, to recess approval of a ballot referendum for this November. The measurement would ask voters to fund a wastewater treatment expansion with a small sales tax increase.

Now, the GOP-controlled legislature would need to call a special meeting to review any changes to the proposal before the deadline to add the referendum before the end of next week.

Supporters — from scientists and environmental groups, to labor unions and Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone's administration — who spoke before the vote on Tuesday said the measure was needed to restore the health of Long Island waterways.

“Politics is not a good reason to bicker about the benefits of this bill to the environment, our recreational enjoyment or our land values,” said Laurie Veteri, cofounder of the Setauket Harbor Task Force.

Residents would have had the chance to vote on an additional eighth-of-a-penny sales tax increase to fund septic upgrades, and another measure to consolidation and growth of the county’s 27 sewer districts.

“I am confident this is the most scientifically robust plan of any county in this nation,” said Chris Gobler, the endowed chair of coastal ecology and conservation at Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences.

The problem for the Republicans in the legislature was that more of the funding would go to individual property owners for new septic upgrades, and not general sewer construction.

"I believe that [sewers] would not only have the biggest impact on the environment, but also the biggest impact of putting people to work," Presiding Officer Kevin McCaffery, R-Lindenhurst, said at the conclusion of the hours-long Tuesday, which brought dozens of speakers in support and few opponents who decried any tax hike and additional spending.

About 75% of homes in Suffolk County are connected to outdated septic systems that fail to remove nitrogen from wastewater. Excessive nitrogen creates a breeding ground for toxic algal blooms, and fish kills.

“Nitrogen isn’t just a harm to our bays. It’s a very serious human health threat,” Gobler said. “Presently, residents of Suffolk County are being exposed to levels of nitrate in their drinking water that are epidemiologically linked to cancers and birth defects.”

A recent report from the Long Island Marine Monitoring Network, which Gobler oversees, found nearly all of the 30 Long Island waterways tested fail to meet state and federal standards for water quality.

McCaffery said the Legislature could reconsider the measure if changes in the language are made. "I believe that we can find a solution,” he said.

The deadline to add a ballot referendum is Aug. 4 for the measure to appear this November.

Both candidates for Suffolk County Executive — Republican Ed Romaine and Democrat David Calone — said during a forum earlier this month that they would support putting the question before voters.

Sabrina is host and producer of WSHU’s daily podcast After All Things. She also produces the climate podcast Higher Ground and other long-form news and music programs at the station. Sabrina spent two years as a WSHU fellow, working as a reporter and assisting with production of The Full Story.