At first look, an effort by the East Hampton Town Board to gain greater regulatory power over sand mines and composting operations might seem worthwhile, but is it really? Frustrated by the pace at which the State Department of Environmental Conservation works, as well as the unfavorable outcome of some of its decisions, East Hampton officials are considering tougher groundwater sampling and other measures that they themselves would manage. While an additional local program might be worthwhile, it would not help with the much trickier problem of the D.E.C. itself.
Environmental activists called in to a recent hearing in favor of a proposed law that would set up a local system to watch for a range of pollutants. Opposition came from a sand mine owner, whose representatives said that the new law would not survive a challenge in court. The activists are correct that ongoing abuses at these kinds of facilities indicate that closer monitoring and harsher penalties for violations are needed. But the representatives for the Bistrian companies that use a property off Springs-Fireplace Road in East Hampton may also be correct in their assessment of the legal supportability of a town-level program.
The solution needs to come from Albany. The chronically underfunded D.E.C. has too expansive a mission to continue without an overhaul. The scope of its responsibilities is staggering and includes everything from shellfisheries to Superfund cleanups. It has a permitting role on many land-use applications, and it also has police powers that have conservation officers in the field checking hunting and fishing licenses. It runs upstate campgrounds and chases down illegal dumping on Long Island. It builds artificial reefs in the Atlantic and helps control traffic at Watkins Glen International Raceway. It issues air-quality alerts in New York City and recently opened an archery range in Saratoga County. Want more?
At East Hampton Airport, the D.E.C. is involved in figuring out what to do about contamination from perfluorooctane sulfonate, or PFOS, and perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, which are used in firefighting foam and were discovered to have contaminated private wells throughout Wainscott in 2017. Last year, the agency came under fire from the Suffolk County Water Authority for its lax handling of deep excavations that could remove a protective clay barrier above the South Fork’s crucial aquifer.
Last year as well, a state court told the conservation department that it had overstepped its own authority when it granted a Noyac sand mine additional permission to expand. State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. did not mince words when he declared, “In essence, the D.E.C. broke the law and put the interests of the polluter ahead of the environment and the public. . . . The D.E.C. has failed miserably to protect our groundwater.”
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul and state legislators should look at the East Hampton effort on sand mines and composting sites as one piece of additional proof that the D.E.C. needs to be broken up. In short, it is asked to do too much to do all of it well.