Suffolk County, once known as an aggressive pollution watchdog, has cut water testing in half and reduced inspections of businesses that store hazardous chemicals by 90 percent over the past 15 years, county data show.
County officials said the steady declines in testing are the result of a reduced workforce in the Department of Health Services' environmental division, which has lost 22 percent of its employees since 1998. Even with the dip in testing and inspections, the county still meets state and federal requirements, they said.
But environmentalists and lawmakers, concerned about the vulnerability of Long Island's only supply of drinking water, said the county needs to do more. "We sit over a sole-source aquifer. We're unique in the state and we have to do more than the state's bare minimum and be willing to pay for it," said Legis. Kara Hahn (D-Setauket), chairwoman of the Suffolk Legislature's Committee on the Environment, Planning and Agriculture.
The county in the past helped identify polluters in heavy industry, commercial businesses and agriculture. Workers regularly drilled wells to trace plumes of pollution, and went door-to-door in neighborhoods where officials suspected contamination.
But work in all of those programs has been scaled back. Some programs, such as annual inspections of dry cleaners, have been eliminated altogether. Among the effects:
The number of sites where water samples are gathered dropped 49 percent since 1998, according to county data obtained by Newsday through the Freedom of Information Law.
In 1998, Suffolk collected water samples at 2,284 sites, including wells pumping water from aquifers, at deli faucets, library drinking fountains and at private homes. In 2013, the county tested at 1,161 sites.
The most dramatic decrease came in tests to homes on private wells, primarily in eastern Long Island.
County inspections of businesses that store hazardous and toxic chemicals have also plummeted, to about 10 percent of the reviews done in 1998. Testing at gas stations, dry cleaners and industrial sites by the Office of Pollution Control went from 2,239 samples collected in 1998 to 233 in 2013. The historical annual average is about 1,000 samples, county officials said.
The number of cleanups resulting from those inspections has also decreased, from about 300 per year to 150 per year, according to Walter Dawydiak, director of the Division of Environmental Quality -- the unit that does the testing and inspections. "Cleanups have dropped due to the fact that sampling has dropped," Dawydiak said.
The number of monitoring wells dropped to 94 in 2013. The monitoring well program, in place since the 1970s, called for workers to drill test wells around farmlands to check for pesticides; in areas where there might be suspected volatile organic compounds; and to monitor the overall health of the groundwater. In 2008, the county drilled 190 monitoring wells. In 2011 and 2012, between 130 and 140 wells were constructed.
Dawydiak called last year's 94 wells a "temporary blip" because one employee could not work. The program is now fully staffed.
County touts robust plan
Despite the cutbacks, county officials said Suffolk still has a robust plan to protect the groundwater.
"We care deeply about this," Dawydiak said. From testing beaches and pools, and collecting water samples in bays, to continuing to monitor groundwater, he said the county's protection program remains above what many counties in New York do. "Taken as a whole, we're still at the cutting edge with each and every thing we do," he said.
Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, who has made water quality the top priority of his administration, said he wants the health department to do more than test. Instead, he said, he wants to solve water quality problems, particularly nitrogen, mainly by increasing the number of homes connected to sewers.
"We're focused on how do we solve the water quality problem," Bellone said. "We've done tons of testing and we know we have water quality issues. What I'm focused on and what the administration is focused on is how do we actually advance the issue to make progress."
Department veterans and environmentalists said the budget cuts first began to impact services in 1998.
Then, two rounds of early retirement buyouts in 2008 and 2010 caused the Division of Environmental Quality to lose 24 positions, Dawydiak said.
And its numbers have continued to decline. In 2010, the Division of Environmental Quality had 141 filled positions, but by 2012 it was down to 123, and to 111 at the beginning of 2014.
The Department of Health itself also was hit hard in 2012, Bellone's first year in office.
Of the 315 county employees laid off that year, 123 were in the county's health department -- 25 more than a list of suggested layoffs compiled by Bellone's predecessor, Steve Levy.
To preserve some staff in the division, the county eventually shifted money from a 1/4-percent sales tax program passed by voters to protect groundwater.
The county is hiring four more positions in the Office of Pollution Control and one additional chemist to process tests in the county's lab. That would raise inspections of businesses that store or use hazardous chemicals, such as dry cleaners and gas stations, and allow the county to do annual inspections of dry cleaners.
Environmentalists say they're disturbed by what they see as a weakened county health department.
Bob DeLuca, president of environmental advocacy organization Group for the East End, worked at the Division of Environmental Quality from 1986 to 1992.
"Their prior commitment and substantial investment in water quality monitoring and testing made it one of the banner programs of the Suffolk County Health Department," he said. "They've struggled for the last 10 or 15 years."
To deal with the budget cuts, the division reduced staff in areas where there were no federal or state mandates, such as inspections of private wells and inspections of businesses that have the potential to pollute, Dawydiak said.
"In difficult times, hard decisions have to be made," Dawydiak said. Pollution control, which inspects possible polluters, was hit particularly hard, he said. "It's a program which is not technically mandated. We do it because they store toxic and hazardous materials, and the potential impact on groundwater."
In the past, between 30 percent and 50 percent of inspections by the Office of Pollution Control led to "actionable cleanups."
The county has not inspected dry cleaners since 2010. Before then, the county had done annual inspections starting in the 1980s, Dawydiak said.
Dry cleaning businesses account for 9 percent of the Superfund sites in Suffolk County, most commonly for pollution from Tetrachloroethylene, commonly known as PERC or PCE -- a dry cleaning agent the EPA lists as a carcinogen.
Dawydiak said a new generation of dry cleaning technology has been introduced since the county last conducted inspections. But, he said, the county doesn't know yet if the technology leads to less pollution than past practices.
Consequently, Suffolk this summer began inspecting the approximately 400 dry cleaners in the county, a process expected to take 12 months.
Gas stations, too, once were inspected annually because of the harm that could come from leaking fuel tanks and gasoline additives, including the now-banned MTBE. Now, gas stations are inspected once every three years, the state minimum, Dawydiak said. He said the county made the change during budget cuts in 2010 because it required gas tanks to be double-walled.
Well testing declined
There also has been a decline in the testing of private wells.
Suffolk has tested fewer than a quarter of the number of private on-site water supplies in 2013 than it did in 1998 -- from 1,733 to 411. While most county residents get their water from providers, the largest of which is the Suffolk Water Authority, an estimated 45,000 homes have private wells.
The county offers to test drinking water for $100.
In addition, fewer so-called private well surveys are conducted. In those cases, if the county suspects there is a possible spill or contamination, the county would offer to test drinking water in homes in the area for free. The county has been doing less of that, Dawydiak said.
Suffolk's testing and monitoring program has been a cornerstone of efforts to protect its drinking and surface water, a matter of key concern on Long Island because the region's drinking water sits in underground aquifers.
Environmentalists and county lawmakers say that an aggressive water testing program is crucial to help identify problems early and can serve as a deterrent to potential polluters. Reduced testing means the county knows less about what is happening with the water.
"There's been a gradual eroding of the functions and aggressiveness of the health department," said Adrienne Esposito, executive director of nonprofit environmental group Citizens Campaign for the Environment since 1985. "They've gone from preventing and uncovering health threats to responding to health concerns."
Esposito, who is running for State Senate in the Third District, said, "monitoring these businesses keeps them in line, keeps them in check."
Not testing the drinking water "is like being diagnosed with a disease and not going for follow-up checkups," Esposito said. "Having an incomplete picture is just as dangerous as having no picture."
Less testing likely
Bellone said the county will likely continue to test less than it once did in some areas.
"We live in an era of permanent fiscal scarcity," he said. "We shouldn't reflexively test because it was done at a certain level."
He said that his administration's resources are better spent on trying to secure federal and state grants to sewer homes -- and reduce nitrogen leeching into water from cesspools and septic tanks.
"We're putting those resources to solving our water quality problems instead of just testing," he said. "We know we have water quality issues. We need to get to actually solving the problems."
He has made reducing nitrogen in the water a goal for his administration.
But environmentalists and county lawmakers said both testing and connecting homes to sewers is important.
"We need to do both, it's not one or the other," said Kevin McDonald, conservation project director for The Nature Conservancy on Long Island.
"We're one of the few places in the country where the water residents drink, is the same as where they live, work, play, and sometimes contaminate," McDonald said. "What Texas does or Schenectady does doesn't really matter."
A strong reputation
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Suffolk was recognized nationally as a leading county combating and monitoring pollution. McDonald recalled attending conferences at which other environmental advocates "would be amazed that we had a county that took the effort to understand groundwater and surface water. They were envious."
The county revealed in 1980 that a pesticide used on the potato fields of eastern Long Island, aldicarb, had contaminated local drinking water. The pesticide was later banned by the United States Environmental Protection Agency.
The county has uncovered numerous major polluters over the years, including the former Grumman naval weapons plant at Calverton, where they found industrial solvents and other chemicals that had been used to build fighter jets at the site.
County workers also helped identify pollution at Lawrence Aviation Industries in Port Jefferson Station. Company owner Gerald Cohen was sentenced to a year in federal prison after pleading guilty in 2008 for illegally storing 12 tons of hazardous waste at the site.
In 2010, a memo prepared by a consultant for the county warned of the effects of reduced staffing at the Division of Environmental Quality.
With declining ground and surface water quality, "additional efforts, and continued vigilance will be essential to protect and preserve the resources," according to a report written by consulting firm CDM Smith, of Woodbury, as part of an update to the county's plan to manage ground and surface water in Suffolk County.
The report warned that the office "currently does not have the manpower to inspect facilities that could potentially release contaminants to the environment at a reasonable frequency."
The report recommended that the Division of Environmental Quality add 24 staff members. Instead, since the beginning of 2010, the department has lost 30.
Bellone has touted his reductions to the county workforce as key to reducing Suffolk's budget deficit -- a thousand fewer employees. "When I entered office in 2012, I was told that Suffolk County government had been cut to the bone," he said in his State of the County speech in March. "That turned out to be false."
Hahn, the lawmaker, said county services have been reduced in some areas. "There's no question with a thousand fewer employees, there are some areas where we're coming up short."