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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

Suffolk runs risks with water testing cuts

David Mullen, a public health sanitarian with the

David Mullen, a public health sanitarian with the Suffolk County Dept of Health Services, Division of Environmental Quality, tests water at a pumping station in Greenlawn on July 1, 2014. Credit: Ed Betz

The fact that there's even a debate over whether Suffolk's cuts to water quality monitoring are endangering groundwater supplies shows the county could do a better job.

A Newsday/News 12 Long Island report Tuesday found that Suffolk's water safety testing program declined steadily, and dramatically, beginning in 1998.

That reaches back before the tenure of County Executive Steve Bellone, who was elected in 2011. But Bellone -- like two county executives before him, Robert Gaffney and Steve Levy -- continued the cutting, primarily for financial reasons.

Bellone and Suffolk County lawmakers, along with environmental activists, differ on the impact of decreased testing.

Bellone and administration officials say that Suffolk, testing at current levels, still meets state and federal requirements. In a region that depends solely on groundwater for its drinking supply, that cannot be enough.

Bellone, to his credit, has made cleaning Suffolk waters a priority during his tenure.

For example, he wants to get more sewers in Suffolk, where -- incredibly in the 21st century -- the majority of businesses and homeowners have cesspools. And he's taken on efforts to reduce nitrogen pollution in the water.

"We're no longer in the posture of having to track the pollution," Justin Myers, a Bellone spokesman, said Wednesday. "We are taking action."

But reacting to Suffolk's groundwater challenges isn't the same as being proactive -- which Suffolk once was, beginning in the late 1970s.

At that time, according to the Newsday/News 12 Long Island report, Suffolk was recognized nationally for aggressive efforts to combat and monitor pollution.

For more than a decade, the county racked up an impressive record.

In 1980, Suffolk revealed that a pesticide -- which the federal government ultimately would ban -- used on East End potato fields was contaminating local drinking water.

The county also uncovered major pollution sites, including one in Port Jefferson Station. That led to a criminal conviction of the owner, who was sentenced to federal prison in 2008 for illegally storing 12 tons of hazardous waste.

That was then.

And this, disturbingly, is now:

Suffolk, which, since the 1980s had inspected dry cleaning businesses -- a major source of groundwater pollution -- annually, hasn't done a single inspection since 2010.

Ditto gasoline stations, which, in the budget crunch of 2010, went from being inspected annually to every three years.

The county inspects fewer potential industrial polluters than it once did, which, (no surprise) also means that the number of Suffolk-ordered cleanups decreased as well.

Given that, it's likely that Suffolk has more water-safety-related issues than officials realize.

Bellone's quest to fight pollution is understandable, and even admirable. But shouldn't Suffolk have a better idea of what's out there before fashioning a fix?

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