Representatives of environmental groups, community groups and local government officials across eastern Suffolk County turned out for a two-hour, wide-ranging conversation with state legislators Thursday morning in Riverhead.
The environmental roundtable event, hosted annually by State Senator Anthony Palumbo, provides an opportunity for environmental advocates spanning Palumbo’s First Senate District, which takes in the five East End towns and northeast Brookhaven, as well as representatives of regional organizations beyond the district’s boundaries, to ask questions of and speak directly to state lawmakers.
Palumbo was joined by Assembly members Fred Thiele and Jodi Giglio for the session at Suffolk County Community College’s downtown Riverhead campus. NY-01 Rep. Nick LaLota stopped in to participate for about half an hour in the middle of the session.
The senator said there’s a tremendous benefit to having stakeholders in the same room for the conversation. The event drew roughly 50 people including representatives of 25 different organizations and local officials.
“It’s an opportunity to address local environmental issues, but also what our priorities should be in Albany,” Thiele told the group at the outset. “Hopefully we will have an action plan for things that we need to do, not just for what we need to do in Albany, but county government and local government also,” he said.
Clean water at top of agenda
Clean water was top of the agenda for many officials and advocates in a region that is both surrounded by water and relies on groundwater as its sole source of drinking water. including the state legislators. The legislators and some of the environmental advocates at the roundtable Thursday had just come off a 10-hour joint legislative budget hearing in Albany Wednesday on the topic of environmental conservation.
“Clean water funding is the main issue, as the governor slashed in half — what we asked for was $100 million more,” Giglio said.
An important part of protecting both groundwater and surface waters is sewage treatment, which has been a hot topic in Suffolk County for more than a decade as former County Executive Steve Bellone focused on nitrogen pollution from aging septic systems and the vast number of homes and commercial buildings throughout the county that have no access to sewage treatment systems.
Kathy Kennedy of the Peconic Land Trust asked what effort is being made to increase funding to expand sewage treatment services to underserved portions of Long Island outside of flood zones, while also incentivizing farm and shoreline conservation.
Palumbo discussed the bill sponsored by Thiele and Sen. Monica Martinez to amend the Suffolk County Clean Water Restoration Act passed last year, to provide an allocation of revenues to be raised by a 1/8-cent sales tax increase that is acceptable to Suffolk County legislators.
“I think they’ve ironed out the wrinkles,” Palumbo said. “I believe it’s now 50% for sewer, 50% for septic. And so that’s going to be a big deal for us, because you need to understand the dynamics of the East End. You can’t sewer the entire East End…But obviously we want clean water and the nitrogen issue is significant,” he said. “It all comes down to funding.”
Adrienne Esposito of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, noted that Suffolk County has been the beneficiary of a lot of the state grants for septic replacement programs. “We just got another $20 million last year, which was great,” she said.
However, the governor’s proposed budget cut in half funding for water infrastructure, from $500 million to $250 million, Esposito said. “Not only does that funding help us filter our drinking water and do sewage infrastructure projects or fund infrastructure projects, but it also allocates the grants for the septic replacement programs around the state. So of course, we’re asking you to please not only keep the $500 million in the budget as it should be, but to enhance it to $600 million.”
Thiele said this is “a tough budget year” but “the demand for those funds is extraordinary.” He said he believes there is bipartisan support in the legislature to get the water infrastructure funding back up to $500 million or even increase it to $600 million. He noted that projected revenues in Suffolk from the proposed sales tax increase will total about $3 billion from the date it goes into effect through 2060.
The sales tax increase must be approved by the voters in a referendum.
“That is a plan to reverse the trend of declining water quality on Long Island,” Thiele said. “And let us not forget that there’s also federal infrastructure money out there. We want to use these local and state dollars to leverage those federal dollars,” Thiele said.
Newly elected County Legislator Steve Englebright, who was a member of the Assembly for 20 years and served as chairperson of the Assembly’s environmental conservation committee, attended the roundtable meeting.
“The real task before us is to seek a balance between infrastructure that is natural being acquired, which is drinking water watersheds, themselves wooded recharge areas, such as the Pine Barrens, and to have infrastructure for downtowns such as the one that we’re in right now,” Englebright said. “We need both infrastructure that’s natural and built. And it needs to be balanced,” Englebright said.
Esposito, a member of the Calverton Restoration Advisory Board for the Naval Weapons Industrial Reserve Plant — the former Grumman site — in Calverton, also asked the legislators for “help in getting the Navy to do a responsive comprehensive remediation plan” for the Calverton plume migrating off the property and polluting groundwater in the area as well as the Peconic River.
“It would be wonderful to have the help. We also are reaching out to Congressman LaLota as well,” Esposito said. “But that’s something that the community would like to meet with you to discuss it further.”
How to get to ‘zero waste’
Solid waste management was also on the minds of many in attendance. Karen Blumer, of Taking a Lead on Zero Waste, started the conversation.
“We produce over 5 million tons of garbage a year [on Long Island] and what are we going to do with them? So nobody was taking the lead,” Blumer said.
The new group grew out of a conversation at a previous environmental roundtable meeting a few years ago, she said, thanking Palumbo.
“Over the last three years, we’ve talked to the experts, industry, municipal waste managers, they’re all part of the table and our executive committee. And we are moving forward. We have 13 towns, two cities, an island — Fishers — and 96 villages. Everybody’s managing their waste whatever way they want. Well, could we do better with some intermunicipal cooperation, so that’s what we’re focused on,” Blumer said.
The group is working on programs to deal with organics, which is 33% of Long Island’s waste and is also working on construction and demolition debris, which accounts for 50% of the island’s waste, Blumer said. “So wish us luck.”
Mark Haubner, president of the North Fork Environmental Council and co-chairperson of Riverhead’s environmental advisory committee, spoke about a residential food-scrap composting program he’s worked on for the Town of Riverhead in partnership with two nonprofit organizations that promote the reduction of food waste, the Long Island Organics Council and Green Inside and Out.
The state enacted a food scraps donation and recycling law that requires large institutions to separate food scraps for recycling. Beth Fiteni of Long Island Organics Council said according to data from the DEC, not all of the 300 large institutions are participating. The DEC needs more staff to be able to implement and follow up on this, Fiteni said.
Also, she said, food scraps aren’t being composed on Long Island because there are no composting facilities or anaerobic digesters to accept them. So food scraps are being trucked off the island, Fitani said.
“We definitely would like to see more composting facilities on Long Island. It’s considered the highest use of the nutrients, if we can put the nutrients right back into our soil for the farms here on Long Island, and it’s an economic opportunity as well for new businesses,” Fitani said. “The towns could be doing more on food scrap recycling as well. DEC does make funding available, but they’re not really making use of it,” she said. Her organization has been “pushing them” and asking how it can help the towns, she said. “We haven’t gotten too many responses so far.”
Riverhead Town, working with the council, established a food scrap drop-off site, Fitani said. But towns need funding for education and outreach. Also, they need to establish curbside pickup to make a food-scraps collection program work.
Haubner pointed out that towns don’t want to get into the waste-hauling business. Collection and transportation is expensive, he said.
“We’re stuck on the transportation and we’re stuck on the outlets,” Haubner said. “Once we collect it, where does it go?”
Like Fitani, others in the meeting addressed the issue of staff and other resources available to the Department of Environmental Conservation.
John Halsey founder and president of the Peconic Land Trust said the process by which the state acquires open space is a problem.
“There is about $150 million owed to land trusts across the state. It’s the DEC itself not having sufficient resources,” Halsey said. “A lot of us land trusts will pre-acquire land for the state, and if money is not returned to us, for three, four or five years, that really slows us up. We can’t do the work of grabbing land before it’s developed and holding it for our public partners,” Halsey said.
Advocates say DEC lacks resources it needs to do its job
Bob Deluca , president of Group for the East End agreed. “This issue of DEC, and what’s happened or is happening or doesn’t happen — I mean, I’m pushing like 40 years doing this work, and I don’t know whether it’s just this region, or if it’s the whole thing. There’s a problem there,” he said.
“They can’t do field inspections. There are no people. They have one line inspector for all of Long Island. I mean, it’s like an institutional failure,” DeLuca said. “And I’m not saying this to be critical of some of the great people that work there, he said. The problem is “the defunding of DEC over time.”
DeLuca said, in addition to not being able to pay its bills to the land trust, the agency can’t send inspectors out on wetlands permit applications.
DeLuca suggested that hearings on this may be needed. “This is an executive responsibility,” he said. “Whether we need to have some hearings on this matter, or something that calls attention, you know, this isn’t. And the more you starve the DEC — It’s not going to work. And all of these things we’re trying to do that require state help are not going to happen unless there’s people that can do it,” DeLuca said.
Thiele said the situation with DEC described by DeLuca is the result of “the systematic defunding of DEC and other state agencies over a relatively long period of time” due to the 2% state spending cap implemented by former Gov. Andrew Cuomo. “So that they are woefully understaffed,” Thiele said.
Thiele also pointed out that funding for state operations, even though it’s included in the budget, “the governor doesn’t have to spend a nickel of it.”
Anne Murray, Southold land use coordinator for the North Fork Environmental Council, said the civics in Southold have gotten together to push the town to do a coastal resilience plan. She said the DEC’s coastal erosion hazard maps haven’t been updated since 1988. That’s a big problem, she said. It means people are using old maps and may be looking to build in an area that is now a coastal erosion hazard zone.
DeLuca urged the state lawmakers to support legislation to address the environmental impacts of the proliferation of warehouses in Suffolk, and Riverhead in particular.
“Many of these warehouses get put in places that are disadvantaged, that should be getting more funding to look at the potential health effects,” DeLuca said.
LaLota spoke of the effort to preserve Plum Island, noting that the first bill he introduced in Congress was the Plum Island Preservation Act, drawing applause from the room.
“We should ensure …that we preserve Plum Island as an ecological preserve.” LaLota said. He said his office will do everything possible to get the bill enacted or, in the alternative, secure executive action by the president to preserve the island.
The island, located in the Long Island Sound off Orient Point, is the longtime site of a federal animal disease research facility. It is scheduled to be decommissioned sometime after the end of this year, when its operations will be moved to a new $1.25 billion facility in Kansas.
Farmland preservation was on the mind of Southold Town Supervisor Al Krupski, a lifelong farmer and the first farmer to be elected to the Suffolk County Legislature, in which he represented the Second Legislative District for a decade. Riverhead and Southold towns don’t see the land preservation revenues from the Peconic Bay Region Community Preservation Fund that the South Fork towns enjoy, Krupski said. And there are still thousands of acres of farmland that are vulnerable to development, he noted.
“We’re kind of in a foot race at this point with people who have other plans besides preservation,” Krupski said.
Long Island Farm Bureau Administrative Director Rob Carpenter agreed with Krupski. “COVID really exposed a lot of things in our food system. And there was a time when there was not a lot of food on the supermarket shelves, which goes back to reiterating the importance of having a good safe food supply,” Carpenter said. “And farmland preservation is a big part of that.”
Other attendees brought up a variety of other topics, including wildlife concerns.
Esposito asked the legislators to pursue a law banning the harvesting of horseshoe crabs in the Long Island Sound. Connecticut enacted a ban two years ago that went into effect in October, Esposito said.
“If the poor horseshoe crab swims north and ends up on Connecticut shores, they have a happy mating season. But if they’re unlucky, and they go south to Long Island, they get harvested and chopped up for eel bait,” she said. “So we think in order to really preserve the species in a holistic fashion, if Connecticut can ban the harvesting, New York should join in.”
Krupski asked the legislators for an extension to goose-hunting season. The season currently doesn’t start until Thanksgiving, he said, but geese are consuming — and destroying —farmers’ cover crops all fall. The season ends in January, and the geese are back eating the cover crops again.
“So they’re eating the cover crop, you get heavy rains, all the soil washes away,” Krupski said, causing soil erosion, that cover crop also in the spring takes up all those available nutrients from the soil. Farmers also use the cover crop to add nutrients to the soil, by tilling the cover crop into the land in spring, he said. “It’s a no cost solution to the state,” Krupski said. “Extend the season for hunting and keep the geese off the farm fields. It will really be a big help.”
Rob DiGiovanni, a scientist with the Atlantic Marine Conservation Society, said in the last year they’ve responded to the largest number of whales in the history of the program.
“We have more activity here. And we have to engage the community to get them to understand we are in an environment where we’re starting to see a resurgence of all these animals. How do we coexist with them? And understand that we have these challenges?”
The environmental roundtable is an annual event begun by Palumbo’s predecessor in the First Senate District, State Senator Ken LaValle, who retired in December 2020, after serving 22 terms in the State Senate. No one at the event Thursday was sure when LaValle first started the roundtable, but longtime LaValle chief of staff, who now works for Palumbo, said she believes the annual event dates back to at least the late 1990s. The first reference to it in Newsday was in 1999.
The survival of local journalism depends on your support.
We are a small family-owned operation. You rely on us to stay informed, and we depend on you to make our work possible. Just a few dollars can help us continue to bring this important service to our community.
Support RiverheadLOCAL today.