Suffolk groundwater monitoring cuts blasted

Photo of the Administrative offices of the Suffolk

Photo of the Administrative offices of the Suffolk county department of health services in Hauppauge. (April 25, 2012) (Credit: Newsday/Thomas A. Ferrara)

Environmentalists are sounding the alarm over cuts to Suffolk's groundwater monitoring program, calling the impending layoffs of well-drillers and hydrogeologists "irresponsible and unacceptable."

County Executive Steve Bellone's revised July layoff list, approved by lawmakers last week, reduced total job cuts from 464 to 315, effective July 1. It axed 123 Health Department positions, 25 more than the list compiled by Bellone's predecessor, Steve Levy.

Nearly 20 of the departmental layoffs come from the environmental quality division, including six in the Office of Water Resources, which tests drinking water for contaminants. A Suffolk legislative committee is expected to hear from critics of the Health Department cuts during a hearing Thursday.

"This is a necessity -- not a luxury item to be cut in challenging fiscal times," said Citizens Campaign for the Environment executive director Adrienne Esposito. "Using the economy as an excuse to get out of drinking water monitoring is irresponsible and unacceptable."

Vanessa Baird-Streeter, a Bellone spokeswoman, has said Health Commissioner James Tomarken provided input into the list, helping save 19 grant-funded health jobs. Wednesday, she acknowledged "painful cuts" remained necessary due to a projected three-year budget gap of $550 million.

"However, while these cuts have necessitated reducing the size of the Office of Water Resources, Suffolk County has adequate resources to protect water quality and remains committed to its core public health mission," she said.

But Legis. John Kennedy (R-Nesconset) said groundwater monitors who protect an aquifer serving 1.5 million people were "mission critical.

"I don't think the level of comprehension associated with the work this unit does made its way up the food chain," Kennedy said. "I honestly don't know if Dr. Tomarken appreciates their importance, and the fact that there's basically no one else to do this."

Tomarken said the county's "comprehensive" water protection work will continue. The department will compensate for the layoffs by cross-training remaining health staff, redistributing some duties and by charging polluters for county cleanup and testing.

"Residents need to know that the public water supply program will be unaffected by changes to the groundwater unit," Tomarken said. "Suffolk County has not and will not abandon its responsibilities."

Legis. Kara Hahn (D-Setauket), who chairs the environment committee, has asked officials to explain that promise at the May 24 committee meeting.

"The health department is maintaining they're not abandoning water resource protection," Hahn said. "I really need to hear from them about how this is going to happen."A state Environmental Conservation spokeswoman said that her department plans to consult with the county to learn how the layoffs may affect joint programs.

Martin Trent, who worked 37 years in the health department -- retiring in 2010 as chief public health sanitarian -- said environmental quality staff have discovered groundwater plumes and pollution at "literally dozens" of Superfund and hazardous waste sites.

"If the layoffs aren't reversed, the division will be unable to protect public health and the environment," he said.

With Sarah Crichton

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