Sand Land Told to Stop Mining

Environmental groups claim victory, while owner vows to fight the ruling

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation has ruled that the Sand Land industrial mine in Noyac must stop its controversial mining operations and confine itself solely to remediation work on the 50-acre site, potentially ending a two-decades-long fight between the mine’s owner and local citizens, elected officials, and environmental groups who have contended the mine was polluting the region’s aquifer and should be shut down.

State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. and Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman had both publicly urged the D.E.C. not to renew the mine’s permit, which expires in November, let alone grant a request by the Sand Land owner John Tintle to expand mining operations at the site on Middle Line Highway or to continue accepting solid waste.

The Noyac Civic Council, Group for the East End, and Citizens Campaign for the Environment were among those that urged the D.E.C. to do the same after a study by the Suffolk County Health Department released on June 29 confirmed for the first time the presence of contaminants in groundwater beneath the site.

Mr. Thiele called the D.E.C.’s decision “a major step in the right direction” but emphasized, “This isn’t the end. It’s more like the beginning of the end. I think that’s the main thing to take away from this decision. What the D.E.C. decided is an intent to modify [Sand Land’s] permit. By that, they mean cease mining and remediate the property. Among the things we now have to make sure is the owner also cleans up the groundwater, so the pollution that is under the mine doesn’t spread to the community.”

The D.E.C. informed Mr. Tintle, in a letter dated Sept. 11, that he now has until Wednesday to contest the ruling and/or request a hearing. Mr. Tintle could also choose to return to court to fight the D.E.C’s proposed changes to Sand Land’s permit.

“We are prepared to do whatever we need to do,” Sand Land’s attorney, Brian Matthews of Matthews, Kirst & Cooley in East Hampton, said Monday, when asked if Mr. Tintle is contemplating court action. “For now, we’re focused on requesting the hearing. Obviously we disagree with the state’s intent to modify the permit. We’ll present our case on why [the permit] should not be modified.”

Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, nonetheless joined Mr. Thiele in hailing the D.E.C.’s ruling.

“After years of court cases, press conferences, research, groundwater testing — it was a lot of effort, it really was — we’re excited, and we’re relieved,” said Ms. Esposito, whose group joined the fight seven years ago. “It’s an amazing victory. It’s a new day for these property owners. This shows there’s a growing realization that we’re reaching a water crisis [on Long Island] between the various water pollution sites, and that we need to stop making excuses and start making changes. We must prioritize our drinking water over the interests of these polluters.”

Sand Land is located in a special groundwater protection area that is important to the South Fork’s long-term drinking water supply, not just that of nearby residents.

The Suffolk County Health Department’s study found that Sand Land’s mining and other operations such as processing vegetative waste, construction debris, compost, and mulch resulted in the release of iron, manganese, thallium, sodium, nitrate, ammonia, and gross alpha (radioactivity) into the aquifer and deep water recharge area beneath the site.

Iron was found in the deepest parts of the water table at concentrations over 200 times the drinking water standard and manganese was found at concentrations at almost 100 times the drinking water standard.

But even the county’s ability to conduct tests at the mine was a litigious, drawn-out process.

Sand Land officials initially agreed in 2015 to allow the county to do on-site well drilling and water testing, then rescinded permission. County officials ultimately went to court to gain access. That didn’t happen until 2017, and the wells were finally drilled last October.

The county’s lab completed testing of the samples in February 2018. In March, the county’s hydrogeologists finished quality control and validation processes and sent samples to the state D.E.C. and New York State Department of Health. About the same time, the Noyac citizens group and others hired their own expert to review the county’s raw data, which they obtained via a Freedom of Information request. The expert’s report came to the same general conclusions that the Suffolk County Health Department’s report did: The test results corroborated the citizen group’s long-held suspicion that the mine is a hazard.

Mr. Matthews, Sand Land’s attorney, responded by arguing the county’s findings were flawed.

But the D.E.C.’s latest ruling suggests the state was not persuaded by that argument.

Mr. Thiele defended the Suffolk County Health Department’s work when the negative report on Sand Land was first released in late July, saying, “When it comes to their lab, their water quality testing, Suffolk County is basically state of the art. Never have they been wrong in their technical work on water testing, to my knowledge. They are the envy of the state.”