The owners of a long-proposed Yaphank fish farm have agreed to pay a $1.3 million penalty for taking more than 200,000 yards of sand and gravel without a permit, one of the largest actions for illegally digging sand in state history, the Department of Environmental Conservation said Thursday.
BlueGreen Farms Inc. has legally mined millions of cubic yards of sand out of the ground at the Yaphank site of the proposed fish farm. But the company, which has proposed raising sturgeon, striped bass and leafy greens like lettuce at the site since 2010, dug outside of its 67-acre property without a DEC mining permit, within feet of the water table, and on privately owned property, according to the DEC.
Regulators said they are trying to keep watch on the lucrative sand mining industry.
"This sends a message," said regional DEC director Carrie Meek Gallagher. "We're trying to make it more than the cost of doing business."
Street prices for sand range from $16 to $30 a yard, with an average price of $20 a yard, according to the DEC.
Bob Del Col, general counsel, for BlueGreen Farms, said the price is closer to $10 a yard. He blamed unclear boundary lines, and said the company still one day hopes to build a fish farm as well as a hydroponic farm.
"Boundary lines in Eastern Long Island are, to say the least, very unreliable," he said. "From what I understand, the DEC came up with a boundary that we disputed. We’re allowed to do what we’re doing on this property. They disagreed."
He added: "It was cheaper just to end it."
He blamed government agencies for making it difficult to secure financing.
"We have spent millions of dollars on feasibility studies, on site plans, on financing, and all I’m going to tell you, for now, every step of the way we have been obstructed and impeded and various governmental agencies and municipalities have made building this thing impossible," he said.
In a statement later, he said the dispute was over a half-acre site, and the company admitted no wrongdoing.
According to the Order on Consent, signed by owner Eugene Fernandez of Hauppauge, BlueGreen Farms has to pay $125,000 and contribute $600,000 for a groundwater study being conducted with the U.S. Geological Survey. Another $625,000 fine is suspended, unless they don't comply with the order.
DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos said in a statement, "Illegal sand mining not only robs the people of Long Island of these precious resources, if done improperly, it can cause irreparable harm to our environment. New York State will continue our aggressive, on-the-ground oversight to ensure every facility complies with applicable rules and regulations."
Since the proposed fish farm was approved in 2010, DEC's Meek Gallagher said there has been "some skepticism about the whole proposal" and that the proposal was more about taking sand out of the ground than actually building a fish farm. But agricultural uses and construction projects are exempt from state mining law, she said. The facility has an agreement with the town of Brookhaven to excavate approximately 4.5 million cubic yards of sand in the first phase of its multiphase plan, the DEC said in a statement.
Brookhaven Town spokesman Jack Krieger declined to comment on the fine late Thursday but said a project on site was not approved.
The DEC said "millions of cubic yards of sand" have been mined from the property. While concrete foundations for the greenhouse were poured in 2013, no further development has taken place. In 2016, the DEC received a complaint that the company was mining outside of the allotted area. In November 2017, DEC issued notices of violations.
"Sand is an extremely valuable commodity. And Long Island has very good sand for all type of construction purposes," Meek Gallagher said. She said exemptions for construction and agriculture are "big concerns. People use these types of exemption."
Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, said she was "thrilled" with the fine.
“The stealing of sand on Long Island creates craters on the landscape, destroys local ecosystems and makes our drinking water vulnerable to contamination,” she said.