State and local officials are intensifying efforts to stop illegal dumping in Suffolk County after a string of high-profile cases — some involving hazardous materials.
The initiatives include surveying land holdings, using hidden surveillance cameras in parks, bulking up enforcement staff and expanding the state Superfund law to go after dumpers.
The latest action came last week, when the Suffolk County Legislature amended its dumping and littering code to provide for up to a year in jail for people caught dumping waste and construction debris on county parkland, roads or rights of way.
The move also increased the penalties that can be levied against illegal dumpers to $10,000 for individuals and $15,000 for corporations. Previously, individuals could be fined up to $1,000, while corporations faced a maximum of $5,000.
Legis. Kara Hahn (D-Setauket), who sponsored the recently passed dumping bill, said the legislation allows the district attorney’s office to levy harsher fines, but it also gives that right to park rangers, who previously could only issue $100 tickets for littering.
The bill was one initiative that grew out of an anti-dumping roundtable Hahn hosted earlier this year. “It’s really hard when it’s a slap on the wrist,” she said of dumping penalties.
With its broad acreage, open space and secluded areas, Suffolk County can be an attractive target for both residential tossing and sophisticated dumping schemes.
Cases can range from trash dumped along the road and in parks to cars abandoned in the pine barrens to hazardous construction debris ground up to look like mulch and dumped in sensitive areas. Portions of West Hills County Park were closed after the discovery last year of what Suffolk prosecutors said was finely ground construction debris containing hazardous substances.
The problem of illegal dumping moved into the spotlight in 2014, after thousands of tons of contaminated fill was discovered at Roberto Clemente Park in Brentwood.
Suffolk prosecutors said that dumping scheme extended to three other sites in and around Islip Town. Six men, including two former Islip Town officials, and four companies were indicted in 2014 in connection with the scheme. Of those, four men and one company pleaded guilty and one man was found guilty in a bench trial. The officials were sentenced in October to conditional discharges, while the others are scheduled to be sentenced April 27.
Suffolk County has 46,000 acres of parkland and roughly 30,000 acres of open space from Melville to Montauk. The acreage is so spread out and in some cases hard to access that it’s impossible for every piece of county land to be patrolled, Suffolk County Parks Commissioner Philip Berdolt said.
“It’s not only our property,” he said. “It’s state. It’s town. It’s county — anywhere people can find a place to dump without the tipping fee.”
After furniture and household trash were found at Brookhaven’s Tanglewood Park in Coram this year, Brookhaven Town Supervisor Edward P. Romaine ordered a survey of all town open space.
During a five-week period, town employees found televisions, household trash, burned boats and cars, tires, couches, concrete and oil tanks dumped at 11 locations. The town estimates it has spent more than $21,000 cleaning up or carting away the items.
“We’re having so much of this we have to dedicate more and more staff time, which costs taxpayers,” Romaine said. “This is costing us a small fortune. . . . We need to find some regional solutions.”
This year the county legislature also voted to establish a parks watch program modeled on neighborhood watches. In addition, the county plans to survey parkland for dumping sites.
The Suffolk County Police Department is evaluating a pilot program that would place surveillance cameras in parks to catch dumping on video. Other municipalities and agencies are considering the same measure.
Brookhaven Town is particularly concerned because it runs the last large municipal landfill on Long Island that accepts construction and demolition debris. That facility is slated to close in about eight years, and officials fear the dumping problem could increase once it does.
“There are becoming less and less legitimate places to get rid of construction debris,” Romaine said.
State Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Basil Seggos said the state is mindful of how losing that landfill could increase illegal dumping.
It’s one reason Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s proposed state budget includes a provision that would expand the state Superfund program to include nonhazardous and solid waste sites where drinking water or the environment could be threatened.
The expansion would be partly funded by the proposed $2 billion Clean Water Infrastructure Act, which also is included in the budget.
Unlike most of the state, Long Island’s nearly 3 million residents rely on a series of underground aquifers as their sole source of drinking water. But the region’s sandy soil and composition make it easy for chemicals dumped on land to leach into the aquifers, spoiling water supplies. Access to Superfund money and resources could mean faster response and more resources, the DEC said.
The agency is working with Brookhaven, Riverhead and Southampton towns to train code enforcement officers and building inspectors about how to evaluate dumped items to determine if they could be hazardous enough to require a call to DEC, said Carrie Meek Gallagher, the agency’s regional director.
The DEC is in the midst of revising its regulations pertaining to solid waste, including composting facilities, landfills, recyclers and the transport of waste. Final rules should be out in the fall.
“We heard loud and clear that the community wants to see us do a better job of tracking where this waste goes,” Seggos said.
Meanwhile, the Pine Barrens Commission, which oversees conservation and development along more than 100,000 acres spanning the towns of Brookhaven, Riverhead and Southampton, has hired three compliance enforcement coordinators to patrol and is seeking state authority to be able to fine dumpers.
The commission also has an agreement with the Air National Guard Unit at Long Island MacArthur Airport to periodically lift abandoned vehicles out of the pine barrens, Central Pine Barrens Joint Planning Commission executive director John Pavacic said.
The commission has no land itself; the property is owned by more than a dozen governments, from the local villages up to the federal government.
The state legislation that created the pine barrens in 1993 did not give the commission authority to establish penalties for dumping, but that could change. Pavacic said the commission is working with the State Legislature to amend its powers to exact penalties for dumping.
“It is an ongoing issue that you’ll find in various locations in the pine barrens,” Pavacic said. “It can range from folks dumping household garbage to construction and demolition debris. They don’t want to incur the costs of paying the tipping fee.”