The state got it right in September.
That’s when the Department of Environmental Conservation moved to shut down a controversial sand mine in Noyack that was polluting the region’s sole source aquifer. We applauded the strong message that was sent to environmental bad actors across Long Island.
Now the DEC has made a U-turn. The agency recently gave the Sand Land mine an additional eight years to mine an additional 40 feet deeper — and 40 feet closer to the water table — before it has to begin reclaiming the facility. This is nonsensical, and extremely troubling, not least because the stand the DEC seemed to be making last fall is now severely compromised.
Sand Land has tried to expand its mine since 2014 but has been rebuffed by the DEC and the courts. One reason: The company failed to get a letter from Southampton Town stating that the expansion was permitted under town code. That’s because it is not allowed. At some point, Sand Land began accepting vegetative waste and conducting large-scale composting and mulching operations.
Last fall, the DEC essentially determined that the mine’s useful life was over and that the mulching was contaminating groundwater. Iron and manganese, especially, but also thallium, sodium, nitrate, ammonia and gross alpha radiation were found in multiple wells in quantities that exceeded drinking water and groundwater standards, as per tests by the Suffolk County health department. Compounding that, the mine is in a state-designated Special Groundwater Protection Area. Moving to shut down the mine and begin the process of reclamation was the right call then.
So this turnabout is stunning. Settlement talks between the state and the company were conducted in secrecy with no input from entities that have been part of the process, like Southampton Town, Assemb. Fred Thiele and various environmental and civic groups. Nor has the DEC held a public hearing on the matter, though it did extend the public comment period on its reversal into next month. The agency says Sand Land will no longer be allowed to compost and mulch, but Southampton Town officials say language in the settlement could be read to mean that the mine can continue to accept and process vegetative waste it deems necessary for reclaiming the facility.
Also problematic: The town, Thiele and environmentalists — who together have filed a petition in state Supreme Court to overturn the settlement — say the DEC is allowing Sand Land to mine an additional 3 acres of land; DEC officials have previously contended that the new permit with the extra acreage corrects an error in the original permit and that no new land will be mined.
It is true that the DEC is often risk-averse, and might have wanted to avoid a protracted fight with Sand Land over the denial of its permit request. But that does not excuse turning a shutdown into an eight-year lease on life, even with the stringent monitoring the DEC promises to provide.
Sand Land polluted our precious aquifer. The DEC should return to its initial position and shut the mine down. — The editorial board