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Long IslandColumnistsJudy Cartwright

Watchdog: Who's responsible for cleaning trash from West Hempstead pond?

Michael Stewart amid trash in the low-lying area

Michael Stewart amid trash in the low-lying area behind his house in West Hempstead on April 16, 2014. Photo Credit: Newsday / Judy Cartwright

There's a "pond" behind my house that fills with garbage, and I remove about a thousand pounds a week. I've called the county, the state, the town highway department, and nobody knows who's responsible.

-- Michael Stewart, West Hempstead

We can't vouch for the weight of all that trash, but we can confirm Stewart's description. When we visited, the site was strewn with all sorts of debris and discards.

The sliver of open space is wedged between backyards on Oriole Avenue and Woodfield Road, next to the Southern State Parkway just west of Exit 18. The site is below street level and transforms into a pond when storm sewers drain into it after heavy rains.

On the Nassau County assessment map, the northern section is identified as Trout Lake, though neighbors say it isn't so much a lake these days as a stream. Historical references say it was once a thing of beauty, a location where couples would pose for photos on their wedding day. Postwar home buyers paid a premium for the water view.

That was then.

Five years ago, Stewart bought one of those houses with a view, in a winter when the snow cover gave no inkling what the spring thaw would reveal:

Here, an old bicycle. There, a section of discarded power line. Everywhere, plastic bottles, which he suspects started out in overfilled recycling bins. Fallen trees cover parts of the property, some downed by Sandy, some more recently.

Stewart says he came across half of a VW Beetle.

He has hauled detritus up the steep embankment and, when special backyard occasions are on the calendar, calls on friends for an assist. But such efforts produce only a short-term solution because the debris is continually replenished.

And he couldn't find an office willing to take responsibility for what is essentially a drainage basin. (A county staffer who visited did spray for mosquitoes.)

So Stewart fashioned grates onto outfall pipes that empty onto the site to trap at least some of the debris stream.

After our first visit, we started making inquiries. Weeks later we got an emailed answer.

It came from the state.

The site will be cleaned up, the state Department of Transportation statement said, but the work must wait for the pond to dry up.

"Soft soils and wet, marshy conditions make it unsafe for NYSDOT to remove debris from this property now," department spokeswoman Eileen Peters wrote. "If the soils dry out, we will conduct a cleanup."

Stewart told us it typically takes several days of dry weather for the site to dry. Last week's heavy rains didn't help.

Cleanup is only one step. Though the land from the parkway to Trout Lake is the state's, according to the county assessment map, debris is funneled through storm drains as well as "from upstream, just north of the state property line," Peters said. "More permanent measures are needed at the source to prevent litter and debris from flowing into NYSDOT's property."

Hempstead spokesman Michael Deery said the streams and storm sewers in the area are under other jurisdictions. Even so, the town did send a crew to vacuum trash from a state outfall pipe and storm sewers, which bear a Nassau County label.

The county has installed "catch basin inserts and other stormwater management techniques in county-managed areas" to lessen the volume of trash reaching such low-lying areas, Department of Public Works spokesman Michael Martino said. The site in question receives stormwater from "many different sources," he said.

So the chances of screening out all that debris are slim at best.

Still, Stewart is optimistic about the prospects of a cleanup. And he hopes the site will be monitored so they can be conducted more often.

After all, he said, "I understand it used to be a nice pond."

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