As More Dust Bedevils Amagansett, Town Tries Possible Fix

Straw was being laid on the field north of Amagansett's business district on Tuesday afternoon with the aid of a bale-shredding machine lent by Alex Balsam of Balsam Farms. Durell Godfrey

With winds still blowing fine topsoil from Amagansett farm fields into the hamlet’s adjacent commercial district and anxious residents demanding action, the Town of East Hampton announced a plan on Tuesday that includes the placement of straw atop the barren fields and installation of snow fencing to help keep it in place.

On Tuesday afternoon, straw delivered from another farm was being laid down on the field immediately north of the business district using a bale-shredding machine lent to the effort by Alex Balsam of Balsam Farms, who is chairman of the town’s agricultural advisory committee. Balsam Farms has fields off Town Lane in Amagansett, and in East Hampton.

“We don’t use the machine for this practice,” Mr. Balsam said on Tuesday morning, “but we certainly think it will have a positive impact. We use the machine to mulch during the growing season between rows of growing crops like tomatoes, melons, and strawberries, but we’re pretty sure we can adjust it to broadcast straw out more.”

Fencing was delivered and is to be installed “as soon as practicable,” according to a statement from Town Hall issued on Tuesday afternoon. “Right now the ground is probably rock-hard frozen,” Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc said Tuesday afternoon. The temperature surpassed 40 degrees yesterday, however, and rain and a high of 53 degrees were forecast for today, which he hoped would allow stakes to be driven into the earth.

Tuesday’s action followed the supervisor’s meeting last week with Barry Bistrian, whose family owns the field north of the municipal parking lot off Amagansett’s Main Street; Peter Dankowski, the farmer who leases the land; Corey Humphrey, district manager of the Suffolk County Soil and Water Conservation District, and Mr. Balsam to develop a plan to mitigate a situation that brought dozens of residents to the Jan. 14 meeting of the Amagansett Citizens Advisory Committee and last Thursday’s meeting of the town board. At both meetings, residents complained that the dust represents a public health emergency. It has blanketed the commercial core inside and out, including the Amagansett School.

In a letter to parents and guardians of Amagansett School students dated Friday, Seth Turner, the superintendent, said that a presentation and discussion of the situation would be held at the school board’s meeting on Tuesday evening “regarding the steps taken by school officials to address concerns” over the dust. “The health, safety, and welfare of our students is our highest priority, and every effort is being made to insure the school facility is conducive to learning.” The “outdoor air quality,” Mr. Turner wrote, had been a factor in the decision to hold recess indoors on Jan. 11, and “additional steps were taken to temporarily reduce outdoor air vent intakes to limit the dust from coming into the school.”

Last Thursday, the town board authorized an expenditure of up to $2,500 to the FPM Group, an environmental remediation services provider, for an analysis of the soil, after Amagansett residents worried aloud about arsenic, once used as a pesticide, or other, unknown compounds in the soil. Toxins aside, the tiny soil particles themselves, which have been compared in size to flour, are worrisome to residents who fear that they and their children are inevitably ingesting it.

Soil testing was conducted on Tuesday, with results expected in about one week, Mr. Van Scoyoc said on Tuesday. Mr. Bistrian “is confident that results would not show elevated levels of arsenic,” the town’s statement said, as the field was used for dairy pasturage until the 1960s, after farmers had discontinued use of the chemical.

Mr. Van Scoyoc’s office, according to the statement, contacted the State Department of Environmental Conservation’s Division of Air Resources about air quality concerns posed by the dust storms, and was informed that the measures the town is taking are those that the D.E.C. itself would implement.

After complaints about the dust storms reached the town board, Councilman Jeff Bragman suggested legislation requiring that farmers plant a cover crop after the fall harvest. The lack of such cover is blamed for this winter’s conditions. While Mr. Dankowski did plant a cover crop after harvesting potatoes, the crop did not take hold, owing to an unusually wet autumn.

Mr. Van Scoyoc said on Tuesday that Mr. Bistrian and Mr. Dankowski will not plant potatoes in the field in question in the future “due to the uncertainty of establishing a cover crop.” While that is “likely to take care of the longer-term problem,” he said, the town board is considering legislation to codify the annual planting of a cover crop. Mr. Dankowski did not return a call seeking comment.

At the town board’s meeting last Thursday, Mr. Van Scoyoc told the crowd that the farmer and property owner were “very dismayed with what’s happened.” Both “feel terrible and are very sympathetic with residents” and mindful of the health concerns, inconvenience, and damage to property posed by the dust. Both, he said, “feel that the climate has changed to the point where they cannot reliably harvest potatoes and expect to get a cover crop on the field because it stays wet later into the fall.” He said that Mr. Dankowski had told him that 30 working days were lost to rain between Sept. 30 and Nov. 9. “Soils were too soft to get into the field with equipment,” he said.

As of Tuesday morning, conditions in Amagansett remained bleak. Organic Krush, a takeout shop on Main Street adjacent to the municipal parking lot, had closed indefinitely because of conditions that have made employees sick. Lena Vergnes, the manager, said in an email on Tuesday that the cafe’s owners “decided to close the Amagansett store as they didn’t feel it right to put their employees and customers at such a risk when every few days or so we were inhaling fine dust particles and consequently feeling the effects on our health. We are also an organic eatery promoting healthy living, and it feels defeating to not be able to serve food due to an issue like this. However we won’t give up demanding that something be done so we can be there for the community again soon.”

“We do not plan to reopen until action is taken to cover the fields,” Ms. Vergnes wrote. Yesterday morning, the cafe was still closed, a message on its answering machine explaining the reason. “We hope the situation at the farm behind our store will be remedied quickly so we can be back in business soon,” the message said.

Chris Clark, who works at Innersleeve Records on Main Street, had just returned to Amagansett from out of town on Tuesday morning. “It’s pretty bad,” he said, “seeing how it was overnight,” referring to the winds that had once again left Main Street and the structures and vehicles lining it covered with dust. “Same kind of deal, a lot of really fine, flour-like dust all over the place, in underneath the doors, covering everything outside.”

Residents were planning to attend yesterday’s meeting of the agricultural advisory committee, another Amagansett resident, Carter Burwell, told The Star on Tuesday.

This article has been updated with the version that appeared in print on Jan. 24, 2019. 

Strong winds on Monday also whipped up dust on the fields north of Town Lane in Amagansett. Carissa Katz