Amagansett Field Dust Called Health Emergency

Dust filled the air behind Amagansett's Main Street on Friday. Christine Sciulli

Amagansett residents and business owners conjured images of John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath" at that hamlet's citizens advisory committee meeting on Monday, decrying conditions resembling the Dust Bowl of the American prairies in the 1930s and what they called a public health emergency over the dust that has blown off the dry farm fields north of Main Street, blanketed the commercial core, and made its way indoors, sickening employees of Main Street's businesses.

“I feel it in my lungs, I feel it on my skin. You can taste it,” Michael Cinque, the owner of Amagansett Wine and Spirits, said Monday morning. “It’s the finest dust; it goes through the finest cracks. Every bottle in the store is dusty.” 

The absence of a cover crop is blamed for the silty top layer of soil’s windblown movement into the commercial core. 

The 10 parcels of farmland north of Main Street, totaling 33 acres, are owned by Bistrian Farms Corp., Bistrian Land Corp., Bistrian Cement Corp., and Fireplace Development Corp., the latter comprising generations of the Bistrian family. The land is leased to Peter Dankowski, a farmer. 

Twice last week, the dust blowing off the dry fields just north of Main Street created thick clouds of particulate that swirled over the hamlet, coating parked cars and sidewalks, finding its way through invisible cracks to settle on bottles at Amagansett Wine and Spirits, the pots and pans in the kitchen at Organic Krush, the bookshelves at the Amagansett Library.

On Monday, three days after the most recent dust storm, sidewalks and stoops on Main Street were still covered in a thick layer of fine golden dust. On the south side of the street it lay in piles almost to the top of the curb. In the public parking lot behind the Main Street businesses, even a gentle breeze blew eddies of dust off the barren field and into the public parking lot.

“This is not a new issue,” said Mr. Cinque, who has run his Main Street shop for 40 years and says the field north of Main Street has been without a cover crop for the past six or seven years. He has met with the Long Island Farm Bureau, town officials, and the town’s agricultural advisory committee.

On Monday, hours after it was reported on The Star’s website that residents were planning to raise the issue at the hamlet’s citizens advisory committee meeting that evening, the East Hampton Town Board said in a statement that “the conditions of these improperly secured agricultural properties is unacceptable” and that the town is “investigating every avenue to have these property owners and farmers remedy the situation immediately” before prime topsoil is lost and further damage is done. 

At the citizens meeting that night more than 50 people crowded the Amagansett Firehouse, many speaking anxiously about the fine dust and the contaminants it may contain.

Councilman David Lys, the board’s liaison to the committee, and Councilman Jeff Bragman, liaison to the town’s agricultural advisory committee, listened as speakers worried aloud about arsenic, used in pesticides in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, and other toxins in the airborne particulates. 

Before their comments, Mr. Bragman read the town’s statement. The town “will continue to monitor the properties at issue and will seek to require property owners and lessees of the properties to remedy the situation without further delay,” he read. “The town will work to develop a legal framework and policies to prevent similar issues in the future and to ensure that farmers are implementing best soil-management practices.”

“The last cleanup we did two days ago, we were removing from our property by the shovel load hundreds of pounds of material, literally,” said Jon Rosen, a co-owner of Tiina the Store Main Street. “A crew of a half-dozen guys.” 

“I’m asking the town board, what about the fact that we have 20-mile-per-hour winds forecast later this week? This is an immediate, short-term crisis that legislation isn’t going to fix,” Mr. Rosen said. As of yesterday, winds in excess of 20 miles per hour were forecast for Amagansett on Sunday and Monday. 

Mr. Rosen suggested that dry fields be covered with straw or hay bales, while others suggested fencing be erected, even if its effectiveness in keeping the particulates from settled areas proves limited. “Treat this like the water crisis in Wainscott, like the beach erosion crisis in Montauk,” he said. “I don’t want hundreds of pounds of arsenic dropped over the village this Thursday . . . or next week, or the week after that.”

Michelle Walrath, an owner of Organic Krush on Main Street who said earlier on Monday that her shop has been covered “from front to back and from top to bottom” after three dust storms in 10 days, told the councilmen and committee that several members of her staff had not come to work that day, complaining of severe sore throats. “This is hugely damaging. . . . We all know what silt and soil and dust and chemicals can do to people’s lungs.”

“If it takes a village, let’s be the village,” Ms. Walrath said. “I don’t think we’ll be able to open for business the next time this happens. I don’t think anyone will come to work.”

Kevin Boles, an owner of Indian Wells Tavern on Main Street, said that when the same thing happened a few years ago, damage to mechanical equipment, which is on the restaurant’s roof, cost around $3,500 to repair. Dust, he said, was in the basement, and enters the kitchen when its door is opened.

The dust is “almost like flour,” said Craig Wright of Innersleeve Records on Main Street. “I’m sure most air filtration systems are not stopping it. . . . I’m sure a lot of us carried it in here to this meeting.”

Nay Htun, a chemical engineer and professor of environmental engineering at Stony Brook University, confirmed residents’ fears. “From a human health point of view, the size of particle is most important,” he said. “Fine particles, there’s nothing that will filter or trap it. They can get into the whole body.” Particles less than 2.5 microns in size are the most dangerous, he said (a micron is a unit of length equal to one millionth of a meter). Any analysis of the particulates, he said, should include a measurement of their size.

Mr. Bragman said he had learned of the situation two or three weeks ago and had drawn up a zoning code amendment that “would require planting of cover crops by a date certain,” and had gotten “a little pushback” from the agricultural advisory committee. The discussion was postponed, he said, but he had also spoken with Liz Camps, a district conservationist with the federal Department of Agriculture, “to get objective expertise on the types of steps taken to prevent this happening again.” He is awaiting more information, he said. 

“I think we can accommodate the farmers, draft up something that makes sense for them,” Mr. Bragman said, such as the planting of cover crops while cash crops are still growing. “I hope we can deliver a solution that works for neighbors and farmers.”

The discussion spilled into Tuesday’s town board work session, where Dan Mongan told the board that parents of Amagansett School students report that their children tasted dust in their mouths after being outdoors during recess, indicating that they are inhaling it. This is a “present and immediate emergency,” he said, and the board must use emergency powers “to cause appropriate action to be taken.” 

He read a statement from the Amagansett Library’s board of trustees, of which he is a member. The dust has raised “extremely serious health concerns for library patrons and staff,” he said. “Irrespective of whether potentially hazardous chemicals are present in the dust, the extreme fineness of aerosol dust indicates a serious, immediate risk to human health, since it is impossible to avoid breathing in that dust.” 

Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc said that the heavier rainfall in the Northeast was another symptom of climate change, one that left wet soil conditions, hindered last fall’s harvest, and threw off farmers’ schedules. “That did not allow for cover crops to be established in a timely way.” Similar conditions exist in Southampton and on the North Fork, he said. “We will continue to investigate what the appropriate action might be. The best we could hope for is snowfall.” 

“I disagree!” Mr. Mongan said sharply. Spraying the fields with water may be a simple solution, he said. “Tillage is often part of a soil conservation program. . . . There are dozens of spray materials of varying degrees of environmental friendliness that retain soil.” Snow fencing was another possibility. “It’s not going to be a perfect solution, I recognize that, but something needs to be done and it can be done quite quickly.” 

Mr. Bragman said that a statute requiring the annual planting of a cover crop by a certain date is not intended “to fine farmers for not planting cover crops. It’s putting them on notice that the town cares about this.” 

The Bistrians have long been interested in selling the development rights to the town, and the town has long been interested in buying them, but the two parties have failed to reach an agreement on a purchase price. The family, according to Britton Bistrian, is primarily interested in selling development rights to the land, but she cited discrepancies over the land’s value as well as access. 

Members of the Bistrian family sued the town and its Highway Department in 2017 to force construction of an access road from the farmland to Windmill Lane so that house lots could be developed on the acreage. They demanded that the town follow through on a promise they say was agreed to in 1971, when Peter Bistrian provided the town with land to create the municipal parking lot. 

Just over a year ago, a New York State Supreme Court judge ruled in the town’s favor, saying in part that the family had not provided evidence of the town formally adopting the three-acre strip of land as a public street. In a Jan. 2, 2018, decision, Justice Joseph C. Pastoressa wrote that questions of fact existed as to whether the Bistrians land actually was landlocked and vehicles might actually be able to access the parcels through the town-owned parking lot.

This article has been updated with the version that appeared in print on Jan. 17, 2019.

Particles as fine as flour covered the front stoop of Innersleeve Records in Amagansett.Jack Marshall