Suffolk limits use of burners for Sandy debris

Suffolk County will limit the use of massive debris burners during disaster cleanup efforts after Yaphank residents complained that the devices spewed pollutants following superstorm Sandy.

The county legislature last week approved a bill allowing public works officials to operate the "air curtain destructors" only if they are located at least 5 miles from each other. County Executive Steve Bellone plans to sign the bill into law, aides said Friday.

Four of the large metal burners, which are about the size of large rolling metal trash bins, use high-powered fans to blow a curtain of air over burning debris to speed combustion and reduce pollutants, ran simultaneously after superstorm Sandy at the Brookhaven landfill in Yaphank.

Officials said the method was the most efficient way to dispose of 1.2 million cubic yards of downed trees. But nearby homeowners complained that the burners emitted particulates and thick smoke.

"I can't tell you how bad it was," said Legis. Kate Browning (WF-Shirley), who sponsored the legislation. "It was like a dense fog when these things were in full operation."

Browning's bill would ban the machines' use except during declared state or county emergencies, prohibit them from operating for more than 90 days and require the county public works department to conduct air quality tests during their use.

Before burning was reduced at the request of residents and environmentalists, particulate counts at the landfill were "significantly above" safe levels, county officials said.

"Getting rid of the waste shouldn't be done at the expense of public health," said Michael Seilback, spokesman for the American Lung Association of the Northeast.

County public works Commissioner Gil Anderson said there was so much tree debris after Sandy that if workers had used only chippers and grinders, "We'd still be doing it."

He said the county would have placed the machines at several sites, but the state approved only the Brookhaven landfill location.

"We made every effort to minimize the impact to local communities," Anderson said.

Browning said her bill would ensure that one community doesn't again take the whole burden. She recalled taking her car to a mechanic 4 miles from the landfill after the storm and soon seeing it covered with ash -- "like it snowed."

"If my car's looking like that, what are people's lungs looking like when they're inhaling that?" Browning asked.Brookhaven Town Supervisor Edward Romaine said he supported the bill. The machines provide the "cheapest, fastest, easiest way to get rid of all that brush," he said. "But is it the best for the air quality? I have doubts."

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