D.E.C. to Let Sand Land Mine Stay Open
Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. and environmental advocates reacted with strong dismay Monday to an announcement by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation regarding a "comprehensive" settlement with the Sand Land mine in Noyac that rolls back the timing and circumstances under which the industrial mine has to close, even though it has been found to be contaminating the area's water table.
Mr. Thiele blasted the deal.
"Sand Land is a proven polluter and lawbreaker," he said in a statement. "The Suffolk County Department of Health Services issued a report conclusively demonstrating that the groundwater under the mine is contaminated with pollutants associated with activities conducted at the mine. State courts have found that Sand Land has not complied with the Southampton Town zoning code. The state D.E.C. acknowledges that state mining regulations have been previously violated, resulting in a consent order and penalties."
"What are the consequences for polluting the groundwater and violating the law? The polluter was rewarded," Mr. Thiele added. "Despite intense community interest, the settlement was negotiated behind closed doors with no community involvement."
Adrienne Esposito, executive director of the Citizens Campaign for the Environment, called the settlement "a mind-boggling backroom deal."
"The D.E.C. betrayed the public and is putting our groundwater at risk," Ms. Esposito said.
The settlement is an about-face from the D.E.C.'s decision last September for a notice of intent to modify the sand mining permit for Sand Land. That ruling, had it stood, would have provided for the closure of the mine and its reclamation within two years after its permit expired last November.
At the time, the ruling was hailed for potentially ending a two-decade-long fight between the mine's owner, John A. Tintle of Wainscott Sand and Gravel, and local elected officials, the Town of Southampton, and citizens and environmental groups such as the Noyac Civic Council, the Group for the East End, and Citizens Campaign for the Environment.
Mr. Tintle exercised his right to appeal the D.E.C.'s permit ruling, and the multifaceted settlement he and the D.E.C. reached — which also includes provisions for testing and monitoring of the site — would now allow Sand Land to not only continue mining at the site until 2027, but also expand its existing mine by a depth of 40 feet.
Reclamation of the site would now be pushed back to at least 2029.
"This is truly a disaster. Beyond disturbing," said Bob DeLuca, president of the Group for the East End. "This settlement stands as one of the most significant examples of bureaucratic incompetence that I have seen in my 30-plus years as an environmental professional, and its negative implications on water quality will be felt well beyond this site."
Sand Land sits over a Special Groundwater Protection Area that is important to the South Fork's long-term drinking water supply, not just that of nearby residents. The mine is in the deepest groundwater recharge area east of the Shinnecock Canal.
The Suffolk County Health Department released a study on June 29 that confirmed for the first time what Sand Land's critics had long argued: The company's mining and other operations such as the processing of vegetative waste, construction debris, compost, and mulch resulted in the release of iron, manganese, thallium, sodium, nitrate, ammonia, and gross alpha (radioactivity) into the aquifer and deep-water recharge area beneath the 50-acre site.
Iron was found at concentrations over 200 times the drinking water standard, and manganese was found at concentrations almost 100 times the drinking water standard.
But even the county's ability to conduct those tests at the mine was a litigious, drawn-out process.
Sand Land officials had initially agreed in 2015 to allow the county to do on-site well drilling and water testing, then rescinded permission. County officials ultimately went to court to gain access. That didn't happen until October of 2017, when the wells were finally drilled.
The county's lab completed testing of the samples in February of 2018.
A month later, the county's hydrogeologists finished quality control and validation processes and sent samples to the D.E.C. and the New York State Department of Health. About the same time, the Noyac citizens group and others hired their own expert to review the county's raw data, which they obtained via a Freedom of Information request. The expert's report came to the same general conclusions that the Suffolk County Health Department's report had: The plant is a hazard.
At the time, Sand Land's attorney, Brian Matthews of Matthews, Kirst & Cooley of East Hampton, responded by arguing that the county's findings were flawed.
Now that the D.E.C. has reversed course, the long fight is likely to resume, perhaps back in court.
The D.E.C. statement said Sand Land had submitted a revised mining permit application documenting all of the terms of the settlement that the D.E.C. will make available for public review and comment on Wednesday. After reviewing all applicable public comments, the D.E.C. will make a determination whether to issue the permit.
Mr. Thiele said he is among those who intend to fight. He called for the D.E.C. to hold public hearings on the mine, and demanded that the settlement with Sand Land be subjected to "the most stringent environmental review required by law."
Mr. DeLuca urged a strong response from Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman, who, like Mr. Thiele, has supported the closing of Sand Land in the past.
"It will be critical for the Town of Southampton to quickly engage," Mr. DeLuca said, "to formally reject this settlement and stiffen its resolve to invoke its own authority under the mining law to prohibit any further expansion. There should be an immediate town board resolution to this effect, and it must be part of the record for the new permit application review."
"I see this as a big victory for Sand Land; I’m not seeing it as a big victory for the town," Mr. Schneiderman said Monday. "The other day we were looking at the [2018 D.E.C.] letter that said you’re done, no more mining, reclamation only. And that was exactly the result we were looking for. And then suddenly everything is turned on its head. And we’re all left scratching our heads. Today we’re looking at eight more years of sand mining. And it goes against the position the town has had in terms of not wanting to see additional intensification of mining at that site too."
"I need to talk about it with the town board and our legal counsel, as to what the town's response will be," he added. "But I was not happy."
"If the town is ignored," Mr. DeLuca said, "it must sue the D.E.C. to preserve its rights under the state mining law."