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Incineration of tree debris sparks concern

Nassau County receives tree debris that resulted from

Nassau County receives tree debris that resulted from superstorm Sandy at a collection site in Eisenhower Park. (Nov. 28, 2012) Credit: Charles Eckert

Superstorm Sandy destroyed or damaged thousands of trees across Long Island, generating enough debris to fill 84 football fields 10 feet deep.

Town, county and state crews have removed more than 1.5 million cubic yards of downed trees, branches and other vegetative debris since the Oct. 29 storm, and the cleanup will continue for some time.

"I will be collecting stumps all winter and into the spring," Smithtown Highway Superintendent Glenn Jorgensen said.

Hard-hit Huntington has removed 330,000 cubic yards of tree debris, spokesman A.J. Carter said.

State Department of Transportation crews had hauled away 313,000 cubic yards of trees, branches and brush from state lands and roadways by the end of November, spokeswoman Eileen Peters said.


Where does it go?

As the stumps, trunks, limbs and leaves are collected, officials have to figure out what to do with the debris. Disposal options include taking it to landfills, grinding it into chips and incinerating it.

Nassau County as of last week had moved more than 438,000 cubic yards of trees and other yard waste from county roads and parks to three staging areas, including one at Eisenhower Park. From there, the debris will be chipped and sent to a firm in Calverton for processing, county Department of Public Works spokesman Michael Martino said.

Some of the material will be sold as wood chips, but most will be made into compost and sold to farmers, landscapers and garden centers, Martino said.

The county did not consider burning the material because of environmental concerns, costs and the lack of a site where the operation could take place "with minimal impact to the community," he said.

Suffolk Department of Public Works Commissioner Gilbert Anderson said he expects the county to remove 470,000 to 500,000 cubic yards of debris, with as much as 375,000 cubic yards of it being incinerated.

The county's Office of Emergency Management is using incinerators at the Brookhaven landfill to turn the vegetative debris into ash. Incineration reduces the mass of the debris by 97 percent, Anderson said.

Environmental groups and Brookhaven Town Supervisor Edward Romaine raised some concerns about the incineration, leading the county to agree to monitor air quality at the landfill, said Suffolk Fire, Rescue and Emergency Services Commissioner Joseph Williams.

Monitoring for fine particles should begin within five to seven days, he said Thursday.

"There is such a vast amount of debris," Williams said. "The thinking is, as fast as we can get rid of this, the better off we are. If it isn't in a safe range, we'll do it in a different fashion."

The state Department of Environmental Conservation on Nov. 2 gave Brookhaven permission to use three burners, and on Dec. 5 it authorized a fourth unit, giving the landfill capacity to incinerate 5,000 cubic yards daily, Romaine said.

"I'm happy to see that they're monitoring," he said. "We need to get data for our residents that this burning poses no risk to the surrounding community."

At the end of November, New York City and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers started a six-day pilot program to burn debris. The city hasn't decided if it will continue to incinerate tree debris, said Ted Timbers, spokesman for the city Department of Public Works.


Checking pollution levels

Tests of fine-particle pollutant levels at the burn site in Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn on Nov. 28 were within Environmental Protection Agency standards, federal officials said.

Exposure to fine particles can lead to short-term eye, nose, throat and lung irritation, affect lung function and increase asthma effects.

"We understand there's massive amounts of debris, but this isn't the only way to get rid of it," said Michael Seilback, vice president of public policy and communications at the American Lung Association in New York. "For the person living downwind from this burning, there's definitely potential for public health problems."

With Bill Bleyer,

Sophia Chang, Sarah Crichton,

Scott Eidler, Mackenzie Issler, Carl MacGowan

and Nicholas Spangler

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