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Port Jefferson Station fish farm plan questioned

A Hauppauge sand miner with a history of environmental offenses says he wants to build a tilapia fish farm in Port Jefferson Station next to a long-polluted Superfund site.

But Brookhaven Town officials are suspicious that the enterprise has nothing to do with fish - and instead is an excuse to mine 200,000 cubic yards of sand, an operation they fear could pose a threat to groundwater. Town building officials recently revoked a building permit after the town's planning commissioner ruled that an environmental review and detailed site plans were necessary.

Eugene Fernandez, who says the 25-acre facility would become a sustainable farm for harvesting fish and organic vegetables, has been hit with penalties of more than $240,000 by the state Department of Environmental Conservation for sand mining, dumping and other infractions in Northport, Dix Hills, Port Jefferson Station and Smithtown since 2007, DEC officials said.

Brookhaven officials said they are concerned about Fernandez' record of violations and the sand mining necessary to create the tilapia farm.

Supervisor Mark Lesko added that officials fear the farm might never exist - that, instead, the company would mine the sand and leave two gaping holes in the ground.

"The first concern is that this is all a ruse to go sand mining," Lesko said, "and then they turn around and say, 'You've got two big holes that look like the surface of the moon.' "

Steve Fiore-Rosenfeld, the Brookhaven councilman who represents the area, said the town is also concerned that fish near the site of the former Lawrence Aviation plant could become contaminated.

"Would you want to buy tilapia that was . . . [raised] in a structure" near a toxic waste site? Fiore-Rosenfeld asked. "Not a good idea, I think."

Fernandez, who is due Nov. 16 in District Court in Central Islip to respond to a misdemeanor illegal dumping charge, said the town's fears are unwarranted.

He and his partners say they don't need town approval to build the facility, which would include three 33,565-square-foot buildings, a 60,000-square-foot greenhouse and 129,600-square-foot greenhouse, because it is an agricultural business. Town officials disagree and the town board plans to hold a public hearing Nov. 24 on whether to restore the building permit.

Fernandez said if the $20-million facility gets the go-ahead, he would sell the site to a company he partially owns, Blue Green Farms of Commack.

Leonard Shore, a Commack attorney who is president of Blue Green Farms, denied the farm is a cover for sand mining. Fernandez said such excavation would be necessary but the land - appraised at $8 million - is much more valuable as a farm.

Sand has value for its use in concrete and to replenish beach erosion.

"We're willing to give them assurances that this is not a sand mining operation," Shore said. The facility would create several dozen jobs, he said, and could "raise fish by spring."

More than 1,300 drums of industrial solvents, acid waste and sludge have been found over the years at the 125-acre site where Lawrence Aviation Industries made metal components between 1959 and the 1990s, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency. Gerald Cohen, chief executive of Lawrence Aviation, was ordered in May to spend a year and a day in jail for the dumping offenses.

A plume of pollutants exists near the fish farm parcel and does not appear to impact it, said EPA spokeswoman Beth Totman. The EPA plans to review the project, she said, and is concerned that wells built on the fish farm site could tap into tainted groundwater. "We want to know if the owner's plans are to affect the plume," she said.

Shore said the project doesn't plan to rely on groundwater to supply the facility.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation also plans a review and must sign off on the project, said Peter Scully, a regional director. "There is obviously a sordid history related to the overall Lawrence site which makes it critically important that the department be consulted regarding any future uses" in the area, he said.

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