How many pesticides are in our drinking water? How does 117 sound?
That's the number of pesticides and pesticide break-down products currently detected in Long Island's groundwater. According to the Department of Environmental Conservation, about half are no longer used on Long Island. Now we need to protect our aquifer from toxic pesticides in current use.
In 1998, the DEC began crafting a plan to protect Long Island's precious drinking water from toxic pesticides. This is critical, as we get 100 percent of our drinking water from the sole source aquifer under our feet. After more than a decade of meetings and written comments, the DEC released a new strategy in January.
But calling it a strategy is misleading -- it's more like a setback.
In 2011, the DEC produced a Draft Long Island Pesticide Use Management Plan that provided a useful foundation for addressing the growing problem. But the strategy released in January discards that foundation and fails to offer any meaningful protective measures. It also fails to offer changes to pesticide regulations. It calls for more meetings and stakeholder engagement -- disregarding a decade of meetings and stakeholder engagement. The DEC needs to be more proactive about restricting pesticides that contaminate groundwater. Our drinking water is not supposed to be a toxic disposal system, and filtering later should be a last resort.
In fact, the DEC's new strategy tries to mask the serious nature of pesticides in our groundwater and leans toward "solving" the problem by denying it. The original goal of this plan was to protect our drinking water from contamination, not to monitor and watch an identified problem become worse.
The 2011 plan provided important protective criteria that regrettably disappeared from the current strategy. It offered protective measures for 45,000 homeowners who use private wells, mostly on the East End. Groundwater data show that 50 percent of private wells have pesticide contamination; these wells are used for everything -- drinking, cooking, bathing and mixing infant formula. Unfortunately, regular testing of the wells is not required.
The abandoned plan recognized that multiple detections of a pesticide, even at low levels, should trigger immediate action to prevent further use and further degradation of groundwater. There are 13,364 pesticide products registered for use in New York. The DEC has the authority and the responsibility to withdraw specific pesticides from use when there is evidence that they are contaminating groundwater. To date, 339 pesticides are prohibited on Long Island, and 155 are permitted for conditional use.
The DEC needs to ban three more on Long Island, based on data that detected them in the aquifer: imidacloprid, metalaxyl and atrazine.
Imidacloprid is toxic to fish and crustaceans. There are high concentrations on the North Fork, where many residents drink from private wells. Metalaxyl, a fungicide, is classified as moderately toxic by the Environmental Protection Agency, is linked to human kidney and liver damage, and is poisonous to birds. And numerous scientific studies have identified atrazine, banned by the European Union in 2004, as an endocrine disruptor and possible carcinogen for humans.
The DEC should be determining what options exist for managing pests without these three chemicals. But if the DEC fails to act, the State Legislature must step in to ban them.
The final plan must be proactive in protecting our groundwater. This goal isn't a luxury that can be dispensed with in difficult times. There are alternatives to fungicides, insecticides and pesticides, but there is no alternative source of drinking water. We know how to protect drinking water -- we just need a state regulatory agency with the political will and support to do so.
The public is encouraged to speak at DEC hearings today at Suffolk County Community College in Riverhead and tomorrow at the Morrelly Homeland Security Center in Bethpage. Both hearings are 6 to 9 p.m.