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Lots of Sandy debris remains in LI waters

President of Operation Splash, Rob Weltner, left, and

President of Operation Splash, Rob Weltner, left, and Co-Founder of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, Adrienne Esposito, right, look at debris left by Hurricane Sandy floats inside a canal off Miller Avenue in Freeport. (Dec. 12, 2012) Credit: Steve Pfost

Remnants of superstorm Sandy's destructive power -- refrigerators, oil tanks, children's slides, pieces of houses, furniture and more -- still float in Long Island's waterways and wash up on its shores.

Two months after the storm hit, property owners, environmentalists and government agencies are struggling to get the refuse out of the water, off the shores and disposed of properly.

That's because no single agency or organization is designated to remove the wreckage or oversee others' efforts. And, in many areas, property owners, including local governments, don't have the equipment to do the work.

The vast amount of floating garbage is one of many challenges created by the storm that damaged thousands of buildings, flooded the South Shore, downed thousands of trees and plunged more than 90 percent of the Long Island Power Authority's 1.1 million customers into darkness, some for weeks.

In Mastic Beach, where battering from washovers during storms have flooded the area several times since Sandy struck on Oct. 29, the village has turned to Suffolk County for help cleaning debris out of the wetlands, which are the property of a homeowners association.

"There's a lot of floating docks, a lot of Jacuzzis, some boats," Mastic Beach Mayor Bill Biondi said. "If we were to do it [clean out the debris] or the property owner were to do it, we would need a special permit and special equipment."

Instead, equipment and crews from Suffolk's Department of Public Works, Division of Vector Control will start gathering the items Jan. 7 and hauling them to shore. The village will then dispose of the refuse, with hopes of getting reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The cleanup could take as long as 10 days, but the debris representing pieces of people's lives will likely keep coming ashore for a long time, Biondi said.

"Is it ever going to end?" he asked. "We'll clean it up in January. I'm sure in February when another storm comes in, we'll probably have more washing up."

'Very special situation'

Defining responsibility for cleaning up the shoreline and waterways is complicated by the huge scope of Sandy's impact.

"I don't know if there is a hard-and-fast rule with a storm like this," said Richard Groh, chief environmental analyst for Babylon. "This is a very special situation."

While Suffolk is assisting Mastic Beach, Nassau County said debris in water is the towns' responsibility, but it will assist if asked.

The Coast Guard has cleared navigable channels and the Environmental Protection Agency pumped out and removed oil tanks blown loose by Sandy. As of Dec. 19, 43 250-gallon tanks and 33 55-gallon tanks were removed from Long Island, spokesman Elias Rodriguez said.

The New York Department of Environmental Conservation, the state's lead environmental agency, monitors protected tidal wetlands on Long Island but said the Army Corps of Engineers is responsible for clearing debris.

The corps removes debris from New York Harbor but has no mandate or authority to do similar work in Nassau or Suffolk counties, spokesman Chris Gardner said.

"It's unclear who is responsible for gathering that sort of debris around Long Island," he said, leaving towns, villages and residents to find their own way.

The DEC did not respond to calls for further comment.

Diego Rincon, a 32-year resident of West First Street in Freeport, said a refrigerator floated up the canal behind his house. "It appeared right after the storm. We didn't know who it belonged to," he said.

The family called Operation Stop Polluting Littering and Save Harbors, a Freeport-based group known as Operation SPLASH that patrols the waterways and shorelines picking up trash.

Group president Rob Weltner said it was one of many calls the group received after the storm, mostly from people looking for lost items or reporting large items washed up on their property.

Years-long work ahead

Weltner said it would take years to clear all the debris created by Sandy, partly because no concerted government cleanup effort exists.

"You go back to a stop and we just had it cleaned -- it's dirty again," he said.

Since Sandy, SPLASH boats have searched the waters off Merrick, Wantagh, Freeport and Atlantic Beach, looking for out-of-place items.

"You get to know where to look," Weltner said. "You have to know how the wind and the wave action affect the debris."

The group has reported loose oil tanks to the EPA. It has found coolers, bins, bags, plastic containers, wood and soggy bedding along the South Shore. In a Freeport canal on Miller Avenue, volunteers found a child's slide floating in the water along with pieces of docks and trash.

The storm destroyed 20 of the 30 baymen's homes that dot the shoreline in Hempstead, leaving remnants washing up elsewhere in marshes. Debris became stuck between the supports of a bridge.

"We found a boat tied to a dock floating in the bay," Weltner said of one effort. "The debris out there is very dangerous."

And it doesn't stay in one place.

"Every new storm moves things around depending on the way the wind blows, because the wind rules," he said.

Cleanup responsibility also may depend on the type of debris and "where it washed up," said Mike Deery, spokesman for the Town of Hempstead, pointing out that the town owns the bay bottoms, marshes, some beaches and other shoreline areas.

If the owner of a washed-up item can be identified, that owner is responsible, Deery said. For wood, construction material or other non-identifiable items, cleanup falls to the property owners.

Hempstead crews are touring beaches twice a day looking for debris that "continues to this day to wash onshore," Deery said.

The Town of Babylon worked with the EPA, which helped pump out and remove oil tanks, as well as retrieve gas drums in Lindenhurst, Copiague, Babylon, Amityville and elsewhere.

"The tanks were all over," Groh said. "We picked one up in a creek. We picked them up all through the coastal area."

The town also collected 187 propane tanks, some 5 feet tall and 3 to 4 feet wide.

"The more you're out there, you can't believe what you're seeing," said Groh, Babylon's chief environmental analyst.


U.S. EPA collected tanks in Nassau and Suffolk counties finding:

43 250-gallon tanks

33 55-gallon tanks

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