Nature Notes: Before It’s Too Late

The local drinking water aquifers that we depend upon are being polluted at a rapid rate

The nation is shut down. It’s not for me to open it up. What’s worse to my locally oriented mind, however, is the stuff against nature that has been going down right under our noses here on the South Fork for the past several years. 

The local drinking water aquifers that we depend upon are being polluted at a rapid rate, especially since I first moved back here from California in 1973. First it was the potato beetle killer Temik, next the gasoline additive M.T.B.E., and now it is the firefighting foams PFOS and PFOA. Along with that we’ve been dumping medicines and flushing urine down the drains for a century or more. It’s a wonder that there is any good water to drink or wash with left under our feet at all. The Suffolk County Water Authority does the best job it can under the circumstances and continues to drill new wells into aquifer areas that are still hardly tainted to provide us with good water. But it is treated with chlorine.

People have been mucking up Long Island’s drinking water supplies since before World War II. One has only to read Newsday each day to see how badly we have polluted the underground water supplies Island-wide. The saddest part of the story is that many Long Islanders have been drinking toxic water throughout their entire life spans. No wonder we are such an unhealthy collection of men, women, and children.

Most of our political leaders only react after the whistle is blown. It may not be too late to act, but much of the damage has already been done before they do. I am reminded of a very localized toxic plume on the west side of Three Mile Harbor in East Hampton about 28 years ago when I was the natural resources director of the town. I was informed by a geologist friend that at one house in that neighborhood a pet cat wouldn’t drink the water that came from the tap. I passed the information on to the late Russell Drumm at The Star and he looked into it. Turns out the Suffolk County District Attorney’s office was closely watching that site because of a suspicion of drug-making activity.

If Russell had waited for that department to finish its reconnaissance, which could have taken months and months, the toxic water would have spread underground from one house to another and so on all the way down the gradient. His story summoned the Suffolk County Health Department and the cat was literally out of the bag. Tony Bullock was the supervisor then and wasted no time in getting the Suffolk County Water Authority to extend its pipeline from a little ways north of East Hampton Village several miles north to the impacted area. 

The number of such incidents up and down the Island has multiplied over the years, yet much of our population is still drinking bad water.

Lately there is the Wainscott plume coming from the firefighting foams and other toxins used and released around the East Hampton Airport. The Suffolk County Water Authority has been summoned to the rescue. Unfortunately, many of the consumers of private well water south of the airport have been drinking the poison for years without knowing it. Residents of areas around  Gabreski Airport in Westhampton Beach have seen the same kinds of pollutants in their private well water. 

In Sag Harbor, the village board has voted to install a vehicle impound lot on property owned by the village in the hamlet of Bridgehampton — the old dump. The dump sits in the Long Pond Greenbelt area, which has more than six freshwater ponds, the largest endangered tiger salamander population on Long Island, and a nearly pristine swath of aquatic and upland habitats protected by Southampton Town for at least 20 years now. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, which is the state’s number-one guardian of endangered and threatened species, approved the site after a short walk-through. 

The impound area is going to be paved so that the vehicles won’t sink into the soil when it becomes muddy. But where will the rain runoff from the impound area go? Directly or indirectly into the nearby greenbelt ponds, especially into a tiny “deer lick” pond that is immediately down drift of the area to be paved.

The Atlantic Golf Course on Scuttlehole Road in Bridgehampton is a known tiger salamander hangout. The D.E.C. knows it and the Town of Southampton knows it. The information is contained in an environmental impact statement done for the owners of the golf course when the land was still agricultural. I was the one who discovered the tiger salamander breeding area there and wrote it into the impact statement. Yet both the town planning board and the D.E.C. overlooked that information and a few weeks ago permitted the golf course owners to tear up the very spot where the tiger salamander breeding area was sited.

Did you hear? The Southhampton Town Zoning Board of Appeals just overwhelmingly decided that an 18-hole golf course qualifies as an acceptable add-on use for the Hills subdivision in East Quogue. That’s a very, very big accessory use. Might as well amend the present town code to make bowling alleys, stock car tracks, shooting ranges, and spas subdivision accessory uses as well.

The Town of East Hampton is in the process of buying a 4.2-acre piece of land on the west side of Route 114, just outside of Sag Harbor, smack over the deepest part of East Hampton’s aquifer. The town is considering building as many as 20 to 30 units of work-force housing there. The septage flushing into the same small underground area will spoil the aquifer and may be drawn to two nearby Suffolk Water Authority well fields that are still unsullied as of now.

And the same town is on board with the massive turbines set to be installed 30 miles off Montauk in the middle of prime fishing grounds. The electricity produced is to be conducted through cable some 40 miles long that is to come ashore at Beach Lane in Wainscott and travel underground to an inland storage site in East Hampton. 

When one of these large storage batteries goes up in flames it’s like the Fourth of July all over again. Solar panels don’t blow up and don’t have rotors that knock birds out of the sky.

As we head into the new year, it seems to me that with respect to protecting the environment, we are still very much mired in the dark ages. Our underground water supplies are being corrupted at a fast pace, our marine and estuarine waters are turning sour with each passing day. With each new warm season the blue-green algae, coliform bacteria, and toxic phytoplankton masses come on like gangbusters. Each year another of our coastal ponds and tributaries is added to the rapidly growing list of impaired water bodies and is shut down to the public.

Notice, I left out the traffic situation, possibly the worst insult to our environment of all, not just because motorists have to inch along at a few miles per hour, but because it pollutes the air so. Long Island has one of the highest average ozone values in the state (and by the same token one of the highest sinusitis problems as well). 

At least one local politician is speaking up in a profound way on behalf of the environment. State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. is an integral part of the suit against the inclusion of the golf course as an accessory use in the Hills subdivision.

Isn’t it time to stop and think these matters through thoroughly before carelessly destroying one more butterfly or honey bee?

Larry Penny can be reached via email at