Suffolk County Nitrogen Pollution – Green Amendment

Location: Suffolk County, NY | Status: Active 

Summary: Save the Sound has put the Suffolk County legislature on notice that a failure to act on the nitrogen problem would be a violation of the Green Amendment to the New York Constitution.  

For decades nitrogen pollution attributable to wastewater from Suffolk County’s outdated septic systems has plagued Long Island Sound. This pollution causes a multitude of negative human health and environmental impacts, including drinking water contamination and the proliferation of algal blooms that wreak havoc on essential ecosystems, release foul odors, and produce toxic “red tides” and “brown tides” that endanger human life and make shellfish inedible. 

Suffolk County knows of this problem and its cause – it identified septic system wastewater as the culprit in its 2020 Subwatersheds Wastewater Plan among other documents. That plan provided a comprehensive and widely supported solution to Suffolk County’s nitrogen problem. Yet the Suffolk County Legislature has failed to take meaningful steps to fund and implement this fact-based and science-driven plan in way that will restore and protect clean water for Suffolk County. 

The New York State Legislature has authorized a countywide wastewater management district to help solve Suffolk County’s nitrogen pollution problem at a minimum cost to Suffolk County residents by leveraging significant federal dollars. The program would provide funding to homeowners to either connect to the sewer system or, if that is not feasible, update their septic systems to onsite wastewater treatment systems. But funding and implementing the program requires voter approval via a ballot referendum, which the Suffolk County Legislature has repeatedly refused to allow onto the ballot.  

Save the Sound believes Suffolk County is violating its residents’ constitutional rights to “clean air and water, and a healthful environment” under New York’s Green Amendment by failing to take action to reduce nitrogen levels in Long Island Sound from Suffolk County’s outdated septic systems. While the legislature has discretion to decide precisely how it will take action, it does not have the discretion to take no action and leave the problem unaddressed. The legislature could, for example, take a more standard regulatory approach and prohibit traditional septic systems. But the wastewater district approach is far preferable from an environmental, regulatory, social, and economic perspective. Save the Sound and local partners have therefore been actively pushing the legislature to place this genuine solution to a long-running and troublesome problem on the ballot for Suffolk County voters to have their say. 

Latest Step: On October 11, 2023, Save the Sound, along with our partners at Group for the East End and Peconic Baykeeper, represented by Pace Environmental Litigation Clinic, presented  a letter to the Suffolk County Legislature informing them that they are violating the Green Amendment by failing to remedy the nitrogen pollution problem in Suffolk County. On November 7, election day passed without the people of Suffolk County being allowed a chance to vote for an environmentally, socially, and economically responsible solution for nitrogen pollution in their community.  

Next Step: Save the Sound and partner organizations will continue working to get the Suffolk County Legislature to place these vital referenda on the next ballot. We continue to explore further action in the event that the legislature continues to stall. 

Further Reading:

  1. PRESS RELEASE: Save the Sound, Group for the East End, and Peconic Baykeeper Notify Suffolk County Legislature of its Obligation under the Green Amendment to Address Nitrogen Pollution

Action Opportunities: 

  1. Become a Save the Sound Member 
  2. Become a Pollution Watchdog

Last Updated: November 7, 2023


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