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Long Islanders keep Earth Day in mind

From recycling bins to truck exhaust, Long Islanders tackled a host of environmental issues on Earth Day. Homeowners in Babylon got a new way to help pay for solar panels, while Dix Hills students vied to see which class could recycle the most plastic water bottles. But for some truck drivers, going green meant pricey tickets for environmental violations.

Environmental Conservation Officer Chris Lagree gazed up at the exhaust pipe of a dump truck pulled over in a Brentwood parking lot, then gave the driver a thumbs up. The engine revved, shooting a plume of thick, black smoke into the sky.

Bad news. According to Lagree's hand-held monitor, emissions from the blue Mack truck failed to meet state air quality standards. That meant a ticket - as much as $700 the first time, $1,300 for subsequent offenses - although operators who fix the problem can get fines reduced.

The inspection was part of an Earth Day crackdown on diesel truck pollution by the New York Department of Environmental Conservation. Like a green version of a Memorial Day drunken-driving checkpoint, conservation officers went to Brentwood, Wyandanch, Riverhead and 14 other communities across the state with high truck traffic to do spot checks.

"Leaky exhaust, blue smoke, stuff like that," Lagree said. He knelt, pointing to the shot muffler of a landscaping truck. "If there are holes in the exhaust, that's a ticket."

If a vehicle is spewing smoke, conservation officers hook it up to the DEC's version of a Breathalyzer to test emissions. The darker the smoke, the higher the opacity level, which measures the amount of polluting particles released into the air. Older trucks are allowed higher readings than newer ones. Still, the blue truck didn't make the 55 percent cutoff for its group. It blew 66.9 percent: a "FAIL," on the test printout.

All told, the Long Island operation Wednesday checked about 36 trucks and issued 14 tickets for infractions ranging from excessive exhaust smoke to lack of emissions inspections.

Solar energy installations could get a bump from a program launched Wednesday by the Town of Babylon that will help homeowners finance the cost of pricey systems beyond tax credits and Long Island Power Authority rebates.

Supervisor Steve Bellone said the "bridge" program - an extension of the town's energy efficiency initiative - will essentially pay the balance of system costs for town residents, once other funding options are taken into account. Homeowners will be charged a small monthly "assessment" to repay the amount, plus a 3 percent administrative fee. Homes must get Babylon's full efficiency audit and retrofit, or be an Energy Star home.

Babylon, which is funding the solar program through a town budget reserve, will offer it to 50 residents this year. The Babylon program was announced at the State College at Farmingdale, where a solar-energy system funded by LIPA helps reduce energy consumption by around 5 percent, college officials said.

LIPA rebates can cover around half the cost of home systems ranging from $30,000 to $70,000 and above; new federal tax credits can pick up another third (excluding LIPA's rebate). The state offers a tax credit of up to $5,000.

LIPA chief executive Kevin Law said unprecedented interest in the solar rebate program during the past two years is depleting LIPA's budget faster than was expected. Law said he is working to get more solar funding - perhaps from federal stimulus funds - and hopes to increase the budget next year.

Five students at Chestnut Hill Elementary School were frustrated that their classmates were throwing plastic water bottles away with the regular cafeteria trash. So they started a competition to ensure the bottles made it to recycling bins.

New fixtures at the Dix Hills school's cafeteria this month: bright orange buckets at the end of tables where students dispose of plastic bottles. Counted daily, the bottles are tallied with stickers on a colorful bulletin board. The class with the most points at month's end wins an Italian ices party.

During a noisy lunch period Wednesday, students clamored to see how many bottles were inside their class buckets. Once counted, the bottles were dumped into recycling bins that overflowed. "It's making people think twice before throwing away a plastic bottle," said Carly Zakarin, 9.

The five students added a twist to make it even more eco-friendly: Disposable bottles count for one point, but reusable bottles garner 20 points.

Now more students are toting reusable bottles in bright colors and showing them off, said Ethan Schleimer, 11.

Stephanie Bigman, 8, said the five meet weekly to brainstorm other ways to help the environment.

"It makes me happy, because us five people started this from a small thing to a big thing," said Matthew Hagler, 10.

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