Located in Mineola, New York the Nassau County Department of Health (NCDOH) serves Nassau County on Long Island and its' population of approximately 1.36 million. The population is dense with over 4,700 constituents per square mile to a land area of approximately 284 square miles. A town like Levittown, the first truly mass-produced suburb, has a land area of just 7 square miles but holds over 16,000 residential homes for its' population of approximately 51,000. The county is diverse, with many residents identifying as Hispanic/Latino (17.5%), black/African American (13.1%) and Asian (10.9%). There is a significant population of older adults, with over 18% of residents age 65 or older.
Nassau County has over 470,000 housing units or residences. Many residences were constructed in the mid-1900s with steel underground fuel oil storage tanks (USTs) to heat the residence. Over time these tanks were found to corrode in the ground and leak, impacting the groundwater and surrounding environment. In 1986, Article XI of Nassau County Public Health Ordinance Article XI was adopted. It regulates the storage of toxic and hazardous materials, including petroleum, to protect the groundwater. It states, [New York State] designated best use of all groundwaters of Nassau County is as a source of drinking water. The federal government…officially designated Nassau County groundwaters as sole source aquifers for water supply.” This article included regulations for petroleum tanks with capacities over 1,100 gallons and was amended in 1990 to include requirements for the thousands of tanks (USTs and aboveground tanks or ASTs) with smaller capacities typically found at residences. These provisions provided homeowners with guidance for proper closure of these tanks, either through removal or closure in place, to prevent leaks from impacting groundwater. The NCDOH also started maintaining a registry of these tank closures, with over 89,700 recorded entries as of December 2020. In 2005, the original Small Heating Oil Tank Abandonment Program was awarded a NACCHO Model Practice.
The success of the program, and staff reductions due to retirements, necessitated program updates to improve efficiency. In 2017 and 2018, a respective 3,076 and 3,162 tank closures were completed, an average of 60 closures per week. Documentation, nearly all in paper form, was required from homeowners/contractors, and department staff would then review the documentation, and enter information before and after the tank closure job. Proper information on tank closure procedures was also tough for the public to access, adding to already large call volumes regarding closures.
The online small petroleum tank closure application was implemented in 2018 to remedy these issues. Department supervisors and an IT specialist held trainings to familiarize staff with the program. The goals and objectives of the application are to streamline the tank closure process for the public and increase the efficiency of the departments' sanitarians. The public can now schedule and pay for jobs online and obtain tank closure completion certificates once inspected by the department. Information on proper tank closure procedures is available through an FAQ page. Staff fill out inspection forms in the field electronically using iPads and move the tank closure information to a public database where the certificates can be accessed by the public. Staff spends less time processing paperwork, performing data entry, mailing tank closure documents and answering phone calls.
As intended, the online small petroleum tank closure application has streamlined the tank closure process for the public and increased efficiency for department staff. Of the 2,911 small tank closures through the middle of December 2019, 838 were created by the public through the online application (28.8% of all to-date 2019 closure jobs). This percentage increased significantly in 2020, as 1,318 completed closures were filed by the public online out of 2,082 total completed closures, or 63.3%, an increase of over 30% from 2019. The application has allowed the program to remain safe and efficient through the COVID-19 pandemic, as face-to-face contact between department staff and the public being minimized and foot traffic to the office decreased. Since New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo's stay at home shutdown order on March 20th, 2020, 1,025 completed closures have been filed by the public out of 1,531 total, or 67.0%, an increase over the 63.3% for 2020 overall. A count of public searches on the application maintained since September 2019 shows over 35,000 searches (primarily to look-up/obtain tank closure certificates) have been conducted through December 21st, 2020. For 2020, each inspector was estimated to save a minimum 1 hour and 15 minutes per week. Clerical staff was also expected to see significant time savings.
All the online application goals have been met, as the tank closure process has been streamlined for the public and made staff more efficient through significant time savings. This is evidenced by the high amount of job filings by the public and the time savings for staff through considerably reduced paperwork, data entry, mailings and phone responsibilities.
The significance for public health is that tank closures will continue yet allow inspectors more time to conduct important field work and inspections related to regulated toxic and hazardous materials, including petroleum. The public also has a direct hand in public health, as approximately 60 of the 2,365 completed closures filed through the online application by the public were assigned NYSDEC spill numbers. Closure of old tanks significantly decreases the risk of the county's drinking water supply from becoming contaminated with petroleum.
The application addresses and reduces health inequities, as it is free to the public and easily accessible anyone with internet access can use the program to file work and/or obtain completion certificates. 93% of households in the county have a computer, so a majority of residents are able to utilize the application regardless of their race/ethnicity, socioeconomic status and town/village of residence. When individuals cannot access the internet, the department can mail copies of certificates or provide them at our office. The 7% of residents in households without a computer and 5.6% of residents in poverty can readily receive documentation from the online application.