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State says Port Washington landfill no longer a health threat

The Port Washington Landfill, a Superfund site which

The Port Washington Landfill, a Superfund site which was recently found not to pose a hazard to the public or the environment, towers over the Harbor Links Golf Course in Port Washington. (Oct. 8, 2013) Photo Credit: Barry Sloan

A shuttered Port Washington landfill that once polluted surrounding soil and water and sparked years of citizen activism has been declared by the state to no longer pose a public health threat, three decades after the site was closed.

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation last month upgraded the landfill to a Class 4 site, meaning it is no longer hazardous to people or the environment.

Despite the Sept. 23 reclassification, the town will continue its remediation efforts around the roughly 50-acre landfill, declared a Superfund site by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1989.

Those measures include a pump and treatment facility that collects and treats groundwater from below the landfill, as well as a system that collects gases from the landfill and burns them off, said Igor Sikiric, executive director of the North Hempstead Solid Waste Management Authority.

"It's a good thing environmentally," Sikiric said of the reclassification. "What we did to prevent any further damage to the environment is working. We followed through our end of the agreement."

The landfill was the subject of intense citizen activism beginning more than three decades ago, when methane gas from the landfill began seeping into adjacent homes and creating explosions in oil burners.

Testing also found that contaminants from the landfill had leached into groundwater, and the area had a pervasive noxious odor that was not-so-affectionately dubbed "The Big Stink."

The smell was one of the first indications of trouble at the landfill to nearby residents such as Patricia Van Dusen, who still lives in her house near the landfill.

"Our noses were the first gauge," recalled Van Dusen, who was a member of the Port Washington Landfill Citizens Advisory Committee, founded in 1983.

The reams of reports and studies and monitoring results that once took up an entire room in Van Dusen's house are gone, but her concern about the landfill -- which has been a dormant issue for years -- remains.

"This Class 4 designation, from an uninformed person's point of view, might be, 'Wow, this is finally over,' " she said. "My concern, being on the inside -- just make sure somebody's watching over them. I'm glad we're moving along."

Curt Trinko, chairman of Residents for a More Beautiful Port Washington who also worked on the landfill issue, said the fight around the site has left another legacy in Port Washington.

"It really caused a much more active involvement of people in monitoring and looking out for the health and welfare of their community," Trinko said. "Since the landfill days, I think civic activism in the Port Washington area has been much more elevated than in many other communities across Long Island."

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