Protecting & Restoring Long Island's Peconic Bays
This four-part blog chronicles the experience of one participant in the Suffolk County Septic Demonstration Program for Advanced/Alternative On-site Wastewater Disposal Systems.
7:00am After many long months of waiting for the install date, it is finally here. Oh look outside, there are two huge Wide Load flat beds with three large concrete boxes and a monster front hoe? Back hoe? I don’t know- across from my house. After email, phone call, and text confirmation that it would be at 8:00am on this date, it is only 7:15am! Jeez early birds, let me at least get a cup of coffee in me….
8:00am Wow these guys are prompt! Here comes the large machinery…onto my grass…past the garden and near the house. Oh god, should I move my car? Maybe I’ll just go introduce myself. First cup of coffee in hand, hair up in a messy bun, and sweatpants hastily tucked into my oversized footwear, I’m outside introducing myself to the crew and shaking hands with the guys who now have my yard (and future ability to flush my toilets) in their hands.
Various thoughts throughout the day pm: The holes are so deep! You could fit the height of two men in there. Do I have anything that needs to be buried? Hey, while you have that big machine here, mind digging me a rain garden too? It is raining so hard, these guys must be so miserable and muddy. Maybe I should bring them something warm. Oh never mind, someone brought them all Starbucks. Hey, how many people are here now? Who are you? Don’t mind me as I feed my chickens. Do I have time to take a shower? How many loads of laundry can I get done?
4:00pm Quitting time- I guess, as the large machinery is being loaded back onto the trailer beds. Good thing too because they just keep digging and digging. They encroached upon my vegetable garden too- took down the fence took a few feet from it. Here is what my house looks like at the close of day one. Good thing I am 100% on board with this project. It is pretty intense!
7:15am Right on time (aka early). Instead of one large machine, today there is a cute little baby front hoe and a cute little baby bulldozer (I think they call that last one a skid loader, Sherryll). Today is a big day! Installing the leeching field, hooking up all of the plumbing and electrical components. The big brass is showing up to check it all out. And my ladies from the Peconic Estuary Program are coming too! I should probably make my bed.
8:30am OK (deep breath). It’s a new day- kids are off to school. I’m going to get an update from the crew, meet with the government officials and others who are interested in touring this process like a good homeowner, then head to work for the afternoon. Great plan! What could go wrong?
8:35am The first thing I see is the garden’s perimeter has been pushed back even more. On top of that, the new leaching field begins just a few feet from the fence line of my organic vegetable garden. The installer from Geo Mat is here and shows me the technology. Once the effluent has gone through its cycles, it will then be pumped through two shallow (12” deep) PVC pipes to be spread throughout the loam of the soil. This gives natural bacteria a chance to further denitrify the effluent before it hits the sandy layer where it moves more quickly into the groundwater. Cesspools and other deep discharges only serve as direct injections of concentrated N2 that are much closer to the water table and to sediment types that move liquid very quickly- including into our bays. So I’m also actually going to be fertilizing my lawn. Well…two narrow strips of it anyway. Across half the lawn it will be green…the rest brown. That’s going to look funny on second thought.
But at least I’ll have my garden! (pause) some of it… How much did they take? And come to think of it, shouldn’t I keep edible plants away from this stuff? So I ask. The guidelines say 3 feet. They made four feet. Alright…maybe I’ll just plant the pumpkins and gourds over in this corner come spring. I was handed a new blueprint/site plan/unofficial survey from the architects at Peconic Green Growth. For some reason the system is longer than we planned. You may have this cap in your garden boundaries. Great. Will you put the fence back up? Yes, then fine. But I guess now there is pressure to keep my garden maintained and looking pretty for when the tours swing by.
11:00am Showtime! I know many of these people but represented are: County Legislator Al Krupski, NYDEC folks including the new Long Island Nitrogen Action Plan (LINAP) coordinator, the Peconic Estuary Program, the County Dept. of Health Services, and all of my EcoFlo, Premier Tech, and Exvac experts. This is work. I’m definitely on the clock right now! That’s pretty cool- master multi-tasker- ME! (sound of cheers). They showed us the coconut fiber that is from Sri Lanka and being used as the filtering medium. I definitely felt for the poor guys down in the dirt doing all of the heavy lifting as a dozens of us stood around and watched.
12:30pm Success! Everything is going smoothly. Time to head to work. Oh but first, they want to open the cesspool and transfer some of the liquid to “seed” the new system with those good bacteria that do such good work. I’ll stay an extra half hour for this, no problem. Let’s see what all of my poop and waste looks like. Plus, this cesspool is OLD! Original to the house (1940) and made of brick. I gotta see this up close. Cue the “Oohs” and “Ahhs” from all of the engineer nerds on site over the craftsmanship and surprisingly great condition of the cesspool as the receding liquid reveals the walls of this ancient infrastructure.
1:00pm This is where it all starts to get overwhelming. Since the exact chain of events has been blocked from my memory, I shall paraphrase. After pumping, there is about one foot of crap remaining in the bottom. Not enough for a pump truck. No room left in the new septic tank. Start to fill old biohazard hole with sand (fill from yesterdays hole digging). Remaining water bubbling to the top. Not going down. Use the machine to collapse the top of the beautifully crafted cesspool to allow water to be absorbed into the surrounding ground. They cleaned out the hose from the pump and dumped it on my lawn! Note to self: Need to sanitize the kids swing. They cracked my blue stone walkway with the machine. Turned the cesspool into a bigger, gapping hole. Liquid still not going down and threatening to spill onto my grass. I need to walk away….
Let’s see how the system is progressing. Electrical wires are buried-not put into a conduit making them exposed to, I don’t know, metal gardening tools?! Waaay too shallow near my flower garden. Less than 6 inches- I will hit that with a spade! I definitely dig deeper than that to plant blubs! Where to put the electrical panel? One panel you ask. Nope! Three! (two small permanent boxes and one very large temporary one). We will make a post for you so you don’t have to hang it on the house. Thank you! That is very thoughtful! Found a good hidden spot next to the AC unit behind that big bush. Let me just prune that for you. Snip, snip. Now back to that electrical wire… Is that a chainsaw I hear?!?!?! The shrub is now sliced in half.
Electricians are here. What size generator will I need? What do you mean they are missing a pump for the leeching field? Where is the guy bringing that? At least they tested the leeching field and that works. So you don’t have a way to test/measure the effectiveness of the GeoMats? What’s that you say, dig more wells in the future? What! I’ve been pretty cool about all of this, but now I’m starting to get frustrated and a bit overwhelmed. So much for going back to work this afternoon- a one day install has turned into two+. People are starting to rush because of the impending storm. I’m just going back inside the house for a while.
5:00pm It’s getting dark and they are still here. Looks like they got the cesspool filled and covered and safe. That’s an improvement. The EcoFlo guys are still fiddling with that panel and the system is not running yet. The excavators are quickly moving dirt to cover the system before tomorrow’s snowstorm. I don’t have great exterior illumination so I guess you will have to use your own equipment. I guess the County is paying overtime tonight.
7:00pm Full darkness and the excavators are still going. It’s been a long day for everyone and I need some dinner and wine. Got this Justin and John? Good, I haven’t left in two days- I’m outta here.
Aka “The Great Blizzard”
6:45am The EcoFlo crew that was staying in Riverhead these two nights are on their way over to finish hooking up the electrical and control panels. They are from Pennsylvania and Quebec, Canada, so they are not afraid of a little snow! But even I think this is above and beyond their job descriptions. Even the local electricians and excavating crew are hiding out today. Good thing though because there are thousands of gallons of my old cesspool water sitting in the holding tank as we speak with nowhere to go until the system is up and running. I have 300 gallons of emergency space for wastewater. I can still flush and use water but I won’t be washing any dishes or doing any laundry for now. On second thought, let me take a shower at my boyfriend’s house before I head back home.
7:30am It’s a snow storm and I have no provisions.With all of the craziness these past few days, I forgot to stock up on the important things before the storm (like milk or wine)…so yeah, I stopped for coffee and kept them waiting at my house…sue me! I still can’t believe their punctuality getting here in a storm. They need to turn on the breaker downstairs and jump start the system with fresh water from the spigot. The excavators took the hose they were using so now I’m rummaging through my old, lean-to garage digging for an old garden hose that may or may-not have a hole in it. Found it! Now for the shoveling. There is already about 3 inches of snow on the ground, so I will be a nice guy and push some of this around for them. Good thing I stopped for coffee.
10:05am THUNDER SNOW! Holy crap I just saw a bright flash of lightning out of my living room window. For a split second I thought these knuckleheads just electrocuted themselves. Wow, how cool and rare. I hope the metal heavy machinery in my yard doesn’t get hit. Or the team from EcoFlo…. Actually, I should go check on them…..
10:30am Everyone is accounted for. Crazy Long Island weather we are having- pouring rain storm on Tuesday, 60 degrees Farenheit yesterday, thunder snow in a blizzard today. I tested the emergency backup condition by making a fresh contribution to the new system. Flushed like a champ, so far so good.
11:00am And with a gentle knock on the door and a promise to send all supporting materials through email, they were gone. All up and running they said. Now that the system is operational, I have no limit on my usage. Pretty crazy to think of what is happening in all of those tanks underground right now. Even crazier to think now this team has to drive to St. James to check on their other install of this system last November and then onto Queens for an early flight back to Montreal in the morning. As I watch News 12’s storm coverage, I wonder how far they will make it on the roads. My local contact is in Ronkonkoma. Hopefully, I won’t hear the system alarm anytime soon and all the components continue to purr like a kitten. I sit and reflect on how much water waste we as humans create while there are people struggling to find fresh water. All of the grey water, waste water, dead pet fish, and all the other things we wash down the drain and barely give another thought are on my mind.
11:05am I just remembered this isn’t done until my yard is put back together. Crap!
Editor’s Note: The Demonstration phase of this program, described here, has concluded. The new phase of Suffolk County’s Reclaim Our Water initiative is the Septic Improvement Program, a grant and loan program to assist homeowners who wish to upgrade their cesspools and septic systems. This website provides information for both homeowners and industry professionals and also includes updates on advanced/alternative on-site wastewater treatment technologies, new and proposed code changes, and other wastewater improvements being made throughout the county.