October 22, 2021

Services set for switch

County to shed 3 environmental health programs

S.N. Briere

Cortland County Public Health Sanitarian Derek Green talks about what he looks for when inspecting petroleum bulk storage tanks by using the county Highway Department’s tanks as an example. Green and other sanitarians will no longer be doing the inspections when the program is handed over to the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

Cortland County Public Health Sanitarian Derek Green pointed to the 20,000-gallon petroleum tank at the county Highway Department complex as the Tioughnioga River rushed just several feet away.

He’s checking for leaks; for appropriate signage; for excess liquids in the dike around the tank.

“I also look for rust,” he said.

Green is one of the county’s inspectors of petroleum bulk storage tanks — until Jan. 1 when the program will be handed over to the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

The program is one of three being given to another agency to operate, after the Environmental Health Department, a division of the county Health Department, needed to cut programs not mandated by the state to compensate for increased requirements in state-mandated programs related to lead and tobacco and vaping.

“The over-arching impetus is money,” said county Health Director Catherine Feuerherm. “Health departments are required under regulation — New York state regulation — to provide certain services.”

The three services — petroleum bulk storage inspections, engineering for water and septic systems and housing hygiene — are more than the eight-person division can handle, given the state-required programs. The department could afford only to cover the state-mandated programs and any non-mandated program that had grant funding to support it. The department also reduced what it covers to free people to meet increased requirements for the state-mandated programs.

Environmental Health Director Mike Ryan said the funding isn’t increasing and the county isn’t going to hire more people.

The Environmental Health Department’s 2020 budget is $319,851. It gets $150,000 in state funding, grants for programs, some reimbursement for salary, fees for things like permits and then county funding. Continuing the three programs could cost tens of thousands of dollars and quite a bit of man hours, Ryan said.

The changes could affect as few people as a single family or household, or as many as tens of thousands of people who drink from the county’s sole-source aquifer. Here’s what they do:

Petroleum bulk storage

What it does: Sanitarians like Green inspect tanks larger than 1,100 gallons every three years — or every year for the tanks that lie on the Environmental Protection Agency-designated sole source aquifer, which 98% of the county’s residents use for drinking water.

Sanitarians check for leaks, rust on a tank, whether the proper signage denotes what’s in the tank and if extra safety measures are in place, such as a dike, a wall that would contain the petroleum if there’s a leak.

The county has 427 registered tanks and 90 active bulk storage facilities. The county highway department has over 40,000 gallons of petroleum bulk storage alone. The county has run the program since 1986.

What’s changing: The Department of Environmental Conservation will take over inspections of petroleum bulk storage tanks that hold 1,100 gallons, the registration of the tank facilities and the approval of new tank facilities come January. But it inspects them only every five years.

What it means to you: “I don’t see a lot of changes,” said Preble Highway Supervisor Jeff Griswold. “It’s not like we’re going to have to reinvent the wheel.”

The inspections are meant to prevent spills similar to one in 2015 in Preble, in which a 500- gallon tank at the now-former town garage on Otisco Valley Road spilled at least 200 gallons of fuel oil. The town dug down 18 feet to recapture the spilled fuel before it seeped into the aquifer, which lies about 30 feet deep at that point.

He is not sure his department’s 1,000-gallon tank will be inspected at all, under DEC regulations.

“Back in 1986, petroleum bulk storage was an infancy program for the DEC,” Ryan said. “They were just starting this out and they really weren’t up to speed the way they would have like to be. The counties actually could do more than the DEC could, but the DEC has now gathered most of the petroleum facilities in the state of New York. They’ve become a lot more adept at it.”

It also helps that newer tanks have devices to reduce the likelihood of spills, Griswold said: alarms; overfill protection measures; and containment dikes.

“I don’t know what else we can do to it,” he said.

Griswold also said that if the inspections change to every five years then DEC officials could be even more scrupulous about the inspections especially because part of the county sits on top of an aquifer.

“I think they’ll be a little more picky on how it will hold up for five years,” he said.

Feuerherm said many of the tanks situated over the aquifer have been updated. However, Green noted some of the county highway department’s are at least 20 years old. Tanks normally last 20 to 30 years, he said.

Ryan said he feels confident handing the program over to the DEC.

“The one thing is you always want a local presence if possible, but we had to make a choice,” he said. “We have to have enough people to do increasing mandates that we’re getting from the state without any additional funding.”

State-mandated programs

• Sanitary code enforcement
• Regulation of drinking water supply
• Regulation of cooling towers
• Regulation of swimming pools, bathing beaches and aquatic spray grounds
• Regulaiton of hotels, motels and cabin colonies
• Regulation of overnight, summer day and traveling summer day camps for children
• Regulation of camp grounds
• Regulation of mass gatherings
• Regulation of agricultural fairgrounds
• Nuisance abatements
• Regulation of food service establishments
• Regulation of migrant farmworker housing
• Regulation of mobile home parks
• Regulation of public functions with attendance of more than 5,000 people
• Realty subdivision approval
• Clean Indoor Air Act
• Adolescent Tobacco Use Prevention Act
• Control of lead poisoning
Source: Environmental Health Department

Individual water and sewer

What it does: The department is the permitting agency for individual water and sewer installations. It also helps county residents engineer the systems.

What changes: Residents will need to get their own engineer. However, the county will remain the permitting agency.

“If we didn’t stay in septic we would need to go to code officers, who would have to review every septic that went in,” Ryan said.

However, Feuerherm said she does not know of any minimum qualifications to be a code officer, so it would be necessary to keep the Environmental Health Department as the permitting agency.

What it means to you: “That’s (hiring an engineer) typical in other counties,” Ryan said. Engineering cost could be anywhere from $500 to $800, said Mark Everett, the owner of Everett Design & Engineer Consulting in Cortland. Ryan said a simple installation could cost around $800, but a more complicated installation could be tens of thousands of dollars, depending on what needs to be done.

Housing hygiene

What it does: Sanitarians investigate complaints of sanitary problems in rental housing and determines whether the dwellings are fit for human occupancy.

County code differs from state building code and addresses issues with heat, hot water, kitchen and bathroom facilities and insect infestations.

Two complaints were investigated in 2018, however, one complaint can require many field visits.

What changes: The program no longer receives state aid and was removed from the sanitary code and will now be handled by town code officers, Feuerherm said.

What it means to you: Solon Code Officer William Knickerbocker said he received a memo on the changes Wednesday.

“A lot of it we’re doing already,” Knickerbocker said.

He said many of the things that housing hygiene covers are already covered under the property maintenance code, so code officers are already looking for those issues.

However, he said he doesn’t think the change will affect Solon much, considering there aren’t many rental properties there. Knickerbocker, is the former director of code enforcement for the city, and said there are a lot more rental dwellings in the city.

Feuerherm said the program “goes back to the 1930s when if a family didn’t have, say, heat that was considered a health problem but now it’s considered a code issue.”

If an issue is not resolved it can lead to not allowing occupancy of the dwelling.

Radon to stay — for now

The only non-mandated program the Environmental Health Department is continuing is radon education and testing, which is funded by a state grant.

“For as long as the grant money is there, we will continue,” Feuerherm said.

Cortland County homes have the highest average radon levels in basements and first floor in New York and the county has been designated a high radon risk area by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the state Department of Health.

Radon is America’s second-leading cause of lung cancer after smoking, killing 21,000 people a year. It’s found in rocks and dirt and can seep into houses cracks or gaps.

The only way to know the radon levels in a home is to test. Radon levels can vary greatly; even from home to home in the same neighborhood.

The program educates residents on what radon is, how to use a kit to check the levels in their home and what remediation is available.

If and when the county drops the radon program, the Environmental Health Department could cut nothing else — it’s all statemandated, and the state won’t take over the department, itself, Ryan and Feuerherm said.

“Everything is covered and it’s actually covered well,” Ryan said. “It’s just that we could do this stuff so we did it in the past, but we just won’t have the time now.”