Islip's inaction on toxic dump raises issues of trust

A detective who identified himself as being with A detective who identified himself as being with the Suffolk County district attorney's office, photographed the dumping ground at Roberto Clemente Park in Brentwood, Wednesday, May 7, 2014. Photo Credit: James Carbone

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Joye Brown Newsday columnist Joye Brown

Joye Brown has been a columnist for Newsday since 2006. She joined the newspaper in 1983 and has

'What I find surprising is that not one of the town board members was aware of 1625 Islip Ave. or if they were, they did nothing," Joseph Fritz, an Islip attorney running for State Senate, told the Islip Town Board last week. He was referring to one of six sites now being investigated by Suffolk's district attorney as potentially illegal toxic-waste dumps.

"Like ostriches," Fritz went on, "they stuck their head in the sand."

The board had no response to Fritz -- or the two other residents who passionately lambasted Islip's actions in confronting the issue.

Instead, members moved on with the bonding for what likely will turn out to be a ridiculously low sum -- $6 million -- to clean a public park that District Attorney Thomas Spota days later would say was tainted with heavy metals, pesticides, petroleum-based products and asbestos.

During the meeting, Islip Town officials said they intended to move quickly to clean up a park -- that Spota, some 48 hours later, would predict could be closed for two years.

High on the back wall of the meeting room, above town board members' seats, is the town seal. In a center circle there's an eye -- wide open. According to Selah R. Clock, the town clerk who designed the seal in 1883, "The Eye is the mark of vigilance."

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Apparently not for members of this board.

So far, the town has fired two parks officials, blaming them for not addressing complaints from residents -- and the town's own park ranger -- about dumping at Roberto Clemente Park that last week was revised up to 50,000 tons.

But there are five other dumping sites, including the privately owned property on Islip Avenue, where investigators are testing for toxic materials.

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In short, it's more than the park, which means responsibility -- as, really, it always did -- rests with officials above the level of the fired parks commissioner and his subordinate.

Newsday reported last week that under New York State Department of Environmental Conservation law, the presence of certain contaminants at concentrations detected at the park and Islip Avenue are sufficient to bring criminal charges.

According to a report in Monday's Newsday, the DA's criminal investigation has driven a wedge between town elected officials and the Datre family -- which over the years donated and raised money that helped get some of them elected.

The problem for elected officials? Datre family businesses are suspected of involvement in the illegal dumping, allegations that family members deny.

"I blame the town," Thomas Datre Sr. told Newsday, referring to the dumping at Roberto Clemente Park -- where town-installed video cameras on March 24 captured 48 tractor-trailer loads dumping fill.

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"There was nobody overseeing it," he said, "and that's where there should have been."

He's right about that.

Had the town done its job, dumping at the park, and maybe other sites, could have been stopped earlier.

And it hasn't helped that the DA's office, which hand-delivered test results to worried neighbors of one site, is doing a better job of communicating with residents than their own elected officials.

All of which brings us back to Islip -- where the town, following Spota's disclosures, later in the week took time out to declare a "state of emergency."

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And to where council member Anthony Senft -- the town board's liaison to the parks department and to the project in Roberto Clemente Park -- is doing most of the talking. He also is running for State Senate.

And right on back into the board's meeting room last week, where the seal on the wall designed by Clock also bears a phrase: "Fide Sed Cui Vide" -- which roughly translated, means Trust, But Look Out in Whom. "This motto," Clock wrote in handing over his design, "should ever guide in the choice of town officers."

It's something Islip residents -- as they wait for lab results, a criminal investigation, and the cleanup bill -- may want to consider come election time.

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