Suffolk Closeup: DEC dropping the ball

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What is going on with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC)?

There was an era decades ago when Tony Taormina was a champion of the environment at DEC. “Tony seemed to know everything about Long Island’s environment and politics,” as Professor Charles Wurster wrote in his book, “DDT Wars.” Tony was instrumental in the enaction of state laws protecting freshwater and tidal wetlands. He was an invaluable resource for me and other journalists. His titles included director of the Marine and Coastal Division of DEC. There were some others at DEC who also were environmental guardians.

That was then. This is now.

State Senator Kenneth LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) and State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. (I-Sag Harbor), who represent Shelter Island, had to introduce state legislation this month to prohibit mining on contaminated lands within the state’s Special Groundwater Protection Areas (SGPAs) — because of an extremely anti-environmental move by the DEC.

In 1987, the State Legislature designated nine areas on Long Island as SGPAs. The stated purpose was to “assure that such vital areas within … sole source aquifer areas are protected and managed in such a way as to maintain or improve existing water quality.” Long Island is dependent on its underground water table — its sole source aquifer — for potable water.

“In the face of mounting cases of groundwater contamination from toxic organic compounds … and other pollutants, the state needs a program for the designation, protection and management of Special Groundwater Protection Areas,” the legislation declared.

The SGPAs include: the Central Pine Barrens in the towns of Brookhaven, Riverhead and Southampton; Oak Brush Plains in the towns of Babylon and Huntington; the Hither Hills area in the town of East Hampton; the West Hills area of the town of Huntington and the South Fork Morainal Forest in the towns of Southampton and East Hampton.

Messrs. LaValle and Thiele introduced their legislation after the DEC proposed approval for the Sand Land mine in Noyac, operated by Wainscott Sand & Gravel Corp. smack in the middle of the South Fork Morainal Forest, to continue operations for another eight years — and to dig 40 feet deeper than previously.

Neighbors, environmentalists and public officials strongly complained for years about the Sand Land mine polluting groundwater. Not only has sand been mined but the huge hole in the ground — just above the water table — has been used as a dump for debris including construction materials. Suffolk County Department of Health Services testing found groundwater at Sand Land contained high levels of manganese, lead, ammonia and arsenic.

Last year the DEC issued a notice seeking to modify the mining permit it had given for Sand Land. It was expected that the DEC would order Sand Land closed within two years. But the DEC “behind closed doors … has done a complete reversal,”

Assemblyman Thiele said. “The DEC is not protecting our water; it is rewarding the polluters.” The DEC, he charges, made a deal “negotiated behind closed doors with no community involvement” to allow continued mining at Sand Land for eight years.

Mr. Thiele added that he’d been attempting for months to schedule a meeting with DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos about environmental issues including the situation at Sand Land, but Mr. Seggos canceled every time.

“Now, based on having seen this settlement, maybe now I know why he kept canceling,” Mr. Thiele said. “The State Legislature must step in to insure SGPAs are protected and managed in such a way that maintains or improves existing water quality as was intended back in 1987.”

Senator LaValle said: “We have the responsibility to assure the availability of clean water for present and future generations. Our obligation is to do our utmost to stop contaminants before they enter the aquifer, well before they become hazards to residents’ health. Ceasing mining activities where the water standards are exceeded is essential to meet our goals. Our legislation is necessary to ensure a healthy water supply.”

Meanwhile, a lawsuit challenging the DEC move has been brought against the agency with plaintiffs, including the Town of Southampton, Mr. Thiele, Group for the East End, Noyac Civic Council, Southampton Town Civic Coalition and neighboring residents.

Despite Tony Taormina and some other environmentally-committed staffers, the DEC has had a spotty history. It grew out of the New York State Conservation Department, established in 1911, with its main function regulating hunting. The legislation establishing the DEC was signed into law amid the new national focus on the environment on the first Earth Day in 1970.

However, some at the agency never fully embraced what became its middle name: Environmental.

The DEC must dedicate itself to sound environmental principles. It must protect critical areas in Suffolk and elsewhere in the state, and reverse its destructive Sand Land stance.