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"Letter to the Editor" from Peter Harckham

Westchester County Taking Lead on Septic Management

September 3, 2008

The Journal News
The Bedford-Pound Ridge Record Review
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OP Ed Editor

To The Editor:

Westchester County Taking Lead on Septic Management

With an estimated 40,000 - 45,000 septic systems in Westchester County (approximately 30,000 of them in the Croton Watershed) and an estimated 80,000 Westchester County residents who get their drinking water from ground water sources, both the Westchester County Board of Legislators and the Administration of Westchester County Executive Andy Spano take the issue of septic management very seriously and are moving aggressively on several fronts to address this issue.

Nothing better highlights this commitment than the formation this year of the Board of Legislators Septic Sub Committee, which I Chair, of the Committee on Environment and Energy.  It represents an innovative leap forward in public policy formulation in that for the first time, all of the key stakeholders in the septic management discussion are represented on the committee in order to build consensus from the ground up. Our primary focus is the formulation of comprehensive septic management policy.

In addition to my Board colleagues Mike Kaplowitz and John Nonna, members of the Septic Sub Committee include senior staff of the Spano Administration, the County Health Department, the County Planning Department, Town Board members, the Chair of the Northern Westchester Watershed Committee, representatives of the construction industry as well as the Environment Committee of the League of Women Voters.  NYC DEP, NYS DEC and DOS, as well as our colleagues in Putnam County, have also joined forces with us.

Formulating comprehensive septic policy is complex because it encompasses many government entities including individual Towns, the County, New York State and New York City.  Other issues involve individual property rights and balancing the cost to tax payers.  Additionally, the new NYS DEC MS4 requirements, just issued this spring, present challenges and opportunities to achieving this goal.  The new MS4’s do stipulate mandatory septic pump out and inspection for towns in Westchester that lie in the watershed, but the requirements do not specify compliance.  Our Sub Committee is taking the lead in the negotiations with our partners at DEC and the local Towns to formulate comprehensive septic policy that satisfies the new requirements and balances both the cost to tax payers as well as the responsibilities of the Towns and County governments.

This year Westchester County implemented a law requiring septic pumpers to report data to a centralized reporting system detailing conditions of the pump out.  If the conditions of the report warrant, the County Health Department will then dispatch trained sanitarians for a further inspection and steps for remediation will be taken if needed.   The County also recently passed legislation that will reimburse septic owners who reside in sewer districts, and have paid sewer taxes, for two pump outs and one comprehensive inspection over a six-year period. In 2007, the County adopted a law specifying time-of-sale well testing to ensure the safety of localized groundwater sources.

Further, this year the Board of Legislators appropriated funds for countywide septic education.  In order to implement this program, a centralized database of all septic properties needs to be developed from County and Town records.  Currently, the Administration, in conjunction with the Department of Health and the Department of GIS Mapping, is developing an exciting proposal for a centralized, online database that will plot all septic systems by both mailing address and tax lot ID number.  This data will be plotted on GIS maps and will also include pump out report data, historical as-built schematics and can also be cross-referenced to well test data to identify possible threats to groundwater sources.  Once implemented, this database will enable countywide septic education, empower and assist local municipalities in MS4 compliance and will drastically cut the research time for local building inspectors and contractors on viewing as-built schematics.

Currently, the County Board of Health, in conjunction with the Department of Health, is working to amend the Sanitary Code to clarify and strengthen septic regulations in the code.  To their credit, the Board of Health held three public hearings, two in northern Westchester, and has incorporated the concerns of the real estate community into revised language to both address environmental concerns and to ease ambiguity in the code.

Finally, we are working with our partners in the septic pumping industry to help them to better address septic management issues.  In addition to the new reporting law mentioned above, Westchester has extended weekend summer hours at the Hawthorne manhole.  Working with the Administration, the Department of Environmental Facilities and the Board of Legislators Committee on Government Operations, chaired by Legislator Ken Jenkins, the County is developing an online payment system as well as examining a flow monitoring system at the manhole so haulers would only have to pay for an exact load, not a full truck as is currently the practice.

While there is still more work to be done to achieve our objective of comprehensive septic management, Westchester County, along with our strategic partners, is working energetically towards this goal. 

Sincerely,

Hon. Peter Harckham, 2nd LD
Chair, Septic Sub Committee,
Committee on Environment and Energy

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