Questions Remain on Accabonac Improvement

On the surface, the $1.3 million state environmental grant for the Springs School to install an up-to-date septic system appears to be an important step toward improving the quality of nearby Accabonac Harbor. The school has long struggled with an old-fashioned and partially failed wastewater system. Recently, it has had to do costly pumping as often as every 10 days during the school year. There is no argument against updating the wastewater system. What is not entirely clear is whether newer technology will work at a school-size scale and if it will lead demonstrably to a cleaner harbor.

Money for a nitrogen-reducing septic system was part of a borrowing package Springs voters approved to pay for a portion of a $23 million expansion of the school last spring. Work on the septic system is to begin in mid-2019, with the other work set to begin after that. The school board has not yet decided whether the $800,000 it budgeted for sewage treatment at the time of the 2017 expansion vote would be necessary or if it could be cut to reduce the cost to Springs taxpayers.

A kind of nitrogen madness has gripped public officials here recently. Nitrogen, which is found in urine as well as in many lawn and agricultural fertilizers, is known to spur algae growth in marine ecosystems, cutting oxygen and light levels, and harming fish and invertebrates. But Accabonac Harbor has not been a traditional site of algae blooms, as have other parts of the Peconic Bay Estuary. Nor are there data to support the conclusion that nitrogen levels are now too high. What the data show is that fecal bacteria can often exceed by a factor of 100 the federal safe level for swimming. 

In an 2013 management plan for Accabonac, the Peconic Estuary Program and the Town of East Hampton specifically identified high levels of coliform bacteria as a problem, less so nitrogen. The plan included the diversion of stormwater runoff and the creation of pollution-trapping swales, but it did not call for a septic upgrade at the Springs School. Nor were elevated nitrogen levels identified in the limited test results. In addition, few of the actions recommended in the management plan have actually been undertaken, despite their relatively low costs. In fact, the plan cited non-point source pollution, notably stormwater runoff, as the highest priority for improvement.

Accabonac Harbor has a sprawling watershed that encompasses hundreds of houses and dozens of miles of roads, from Harrison Avenue to Gerard Drive and Barnes Landing and beyond, according to the management plan. No amount of nitrogen reduction at the Springs School will have any effect on the majority of pathogens and other contaminants that reach the harbor’s waters. It is possible that the state’s money might more effectively be spent on the remediation projects described in detail in the 2013 plan. At a minimum, state officials should answer the question of whether a nitrogen-reducing wastewater system at the Springs School will provide the greatest benefit to the harbor.