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East Northport preserve reopens after cleanup

Aaron Winnegar, 10, is among fourth and fifth

Aaron Winnegar, 10, is among fourth and fifth graders from the Bellerose Avenue Elementary School helping to plant seedlings and young trees at the nearby Veterans Nature Study Area in East Northport. (April 30, 2013) Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

The Town of Huntington's Veterans Nature Study Area -- donated for educational use, but found to be a VA hospital dumping ground for hazardous waste -- has reopened after a $2.3 million environmental cleanup.

The 3-acre preserve in East Northport on Bellerose Avenue that was given to the town decades ago will return to its intended educational use, officials said. That includes school field trips for environmental study, cross-country practices for local high school students and walking and nature trails.

"It's safe now, it's been cleaned up," Town Supervisor Frank Petrone said at the town's annual Arbor Day celebration earlier this week. "And now we are going to regrow the trees. It's a great opportunity for the town and the community."

Brianna Sierra and her three siblings who live near the preserve were instrumental in nurturing 50 white pine seedlings planted there Tuesday.

"This is our backyard, basically; we walk our dog here, we love to have fun in here," the Northport High School ninth-grader said.

The cost of the cleanup, mostly done in 2011, was paid for with a $2.1 million state grant. The town paid the remaining $234,000 from the Environmental Open Space and Park Fund program and the Neighborhood Parks Fund.

Tons of dirt, wood, concrete and metal debris dumped at the site when it was part of the Veterans Administration Medical Center decades ago were painstakingly removed. In addition, the contractor removed 36,000 cubic yards of material, mostly the residue of what had been burned on the site, town officials said.

In December, the state certified that the site could be reopened for public recreational use.

At the Arbor Day celebration, about 160 students from the adjacent Bellerose Avenue Elementary School planted a total of 300 white pine, red cedar, black cherry, white oak, red oak, and flowering dogwood seedlings and young trees. Additional planting of larger trees, in a pattern to create walking trails, will follow over the next month.

In 1974, the VA donated 33 acres to the town on the condition the 3 acres of the Veterans Nature Study Area be used for educational purposes. For years learning tours were conducted -- until the site was found to be contaminated in the mid-1990s. Then it was designated a brownfield site in the late 1990s and closed, town officials said.

In 2005, the town hired an environmental engineering firm to clean up part of the land. State and local environmental agencies signed off on the cleanup after the debris was removed and capped with topsoil.

"It had to be cleaned up but then we were upset because all the wildlife was lost,'' Brianna said, "and we wanted to help replenish what was lost . . . so now the wildlife will come back."

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