DEC: Storm-damaged cars harm sensitive grasslands

Superstorm Sandy damaged cars get a coating of Superstorm Sandy damaged cars get a coating of snow from yet another major storm, as they sit on the runway at the old Grumman facility in Calverton. (Feb. 10, 2013) Photo Credit: Doug Kuntz

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More than 30 acres of environmentally sensitive land in Calverton is now "a giant mud hole" after local and state officials ignored warnings about storing Sandy-damaged cars in groundwater recharge areas, Long Island Pine Barrens Society executive director Richard Amper said Friday.

"It's been utterly destroyed," Amper said. "And it's going to get worse."

The state Department of Environmental Conservation has begun an enforcement action against the owner of the property and the company that placed the vehicles there, citing "damage to grassland bird habitat."

Riverhead Town Supervisor Sean Walter said, "Grasslands have been lost. It will have to be replanted."

It is estimated more than 30,000 storm-damaged cars have been stored at Enterprise Park at Calverton, a former Grumman jet fighter manufacturing plant. The cars that created Amper's "mud hole" are on property sold by Riverhead to developer Jan Burman, now operated by The Engel-Burman Group. The firm did not return calls for comment.

Walter disagreed with Amper's contention that the town should be doing something to end what Walter called an ongoing destruction of land identified as both a special state groundwater recharge area and a protected species habitat.

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"The DEC has started an enforcement action against them," Walter said. "If the state of New York can't stop them, how could the Town of Riverhead?"

Most of the cars at EPCAL are stored on land owned by Riverhead, laid out on large concrete runways. DEC officials say those cars pose no immediate threat to groundwater.

State environmental officials have wide latitude in deciding what kind of action to take against people charged with violating the law, and often begin by negotiating with them.

"The placement of storm-damaged vehicles on unpaved areas on land owned by Engel-Burman, which is part of the Calverton Camelot industrial subdivision, and the resulting damage to grassland bird habitat is the subject of an ongoing enforcement action brought by DEC against both the property owner, and Co-part, the company directly responsible for placement of the vehicles on the property," DEC official Bill Fonda said in an email.

So many cars were damaged or destroyed by Sandy -- officials estimate 230,000 vehicles in the region -- that spaces to store them were at a premium.

The wrecked cars have provided a source of income for some private and public landowners.

Riverhead reached an agreement with Insurance Auto Auctions Corp. to use its runways, taxiways and other paved areas at EPCAL for auto storage -- more than 50 acres in total -- for $3,200 an acre per month. The contract could be extended to one year.

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