Nature Notes: Who Cares?

Gardiner's Bay David E. Rattray

What’s happening to the global environment? What’s happening to America’s environment? What’s happening to the local environment? Air pollution is a bigger and bigger issue each year. In India and China it is much worse than in the United States, but at least you can see the pollution clearly in those two very populous countries. Here it’s invisible; you breathe in what looks like clean air, but you develop sinusitis and it doesn’t clear up for months. I couldn’t sleep last night.

Instead of going up into the atmosphere, the smoke from a neighbor’s wood stove sank down under the influence of a meteorological inversion and kept me awake. It’s automobile exhaust in the daytime, other stuff at night. Lately I have noticed that those parts of the multi-tiered bureaucracy, from the federal Environmental Protection Agency on down to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, then the County Health Department, and, finally, down to the local-level agencies — the zoning boards and planning boards — it seems that they have all relaxed their guard.

During the Nixon administration, national wetland laws enforced by the Army Corps, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, and the E.P.A. came into play. Then in New York State, two very strong wetlands act laws were passed by the State Legislature, one covering tidal wetlands, another covering freshwater wetlands. Tony Taormina of the New York D.E.C., now retired, was responsible for getting them up and going, and after he retired, they were enforced on Long Island by the redoubtable Chuck Hamilton, until, in my opinion, he was forced into retirement several years back because he enforced the wetlands laws too well. Towns and villages followed suit with wetlands laws of their own. Riverhead, then East Hampton, then East Hampton Village, then Southampton, then Sag Harbor followed suit. Russell Stein, while serving as East Hampton Town attorney, wrote the one for East Hampton Town with my help. One for East Hampton Village followed, and so on and so on.

Lately, however, the D.E.C. seems to be passing out wetlands permits with very little review and the towns and villages seem to be following the state agency’s lead. It’s as if protecting the environment is falling out of fashion. For example, the only longstanding stream in Sag Harbor, Ligonee Brook, which connects the largest freshwater pond in the greenbelt between Sag Harbor and Bridgehampton to the Peconic Estuary by way of Sag Harbor Cove and then out into the bay under the North Haven bridge, is under threat from someone who wants to build a swimming pool right next to it.

That party already received what’s becoming a “no-look” permit from the D.E.C., which looks more like a Christmas card than the permits handed out in the past, despite the fact that it is the second largest alewife and American eel run east of Long Island’s most productive and most longstanding one that connects North Sea Harbor with Big Fresh Pond in Southampton. Alewives and eels are doing poorly, as you might have already discovered; the D.E.C. and local governments should bend over backward to see that they make a comeback.

The Federal Endangered Species Act of 1973, another product of the Nixon administration, was followed by New York State’s Endangered and Threatened Species Law, and we all applauded. The list of such species is always being edited and revised by the D.E.C. in collaboration with the New York State Natural Heritage Program. The tiger salamander, which is found only on Long Island in the whole state, is one of the rarest vertebrates we have. Wouldn’t you know it, the center of its South Fork population is that same Long Pond Greenbelt system. Yet the D.E.C. gave a blanket permit to Sag Harbor to build an impound area for vehicles seized by the police at the old dump, which is part of that system, eschewing public input while doing so.

Then again, the same state agency gave a wetlands permit to the Atlantic Golf Course, carved out of a potato field on the north side of Scuttlehole Road in Bridgehampton, that allowed the golf course contractors to wipe out the very spot where a neonate tiger salamander was discovered about 20 years ago by yours truly, even though the finding was well documented in the draft environmental impact statement for that golf course, a copy of which is on file in the D.E.C.’s Long Island office in Stony Brook and in the Southampton Town Planning Department office. The Southampton Town Planning Board followed the D.E.C.’s lead and passed a resolution to the same effect.

And who watches over and protects Long Island surface waters and groundwaters? The same D.E.C. Just look what’s happening to those waters; they are being polluted at a record pace and what’s worse, half of Long Island’s population has been drinking polluted water from the aquifers under their feet completely unsuspectingly. If it weren’t for the work of volunteer groups and the cats and dogs, the sensory systems of which are much better than our own, the groundwater pollution would have had all of us Long Islanders drinking chlorinated water from water distribution companies and water authorities or  bottled water by 2025.

Then all that water eventually passes through our bodies, mostly as urine and ends up in underground septic systems thence into the groundwater to leach to the nearest large surface water body, where the nitrogen compounds, detergents, ingested medicines, and the like wreak havoc on fish and shellfish. Putting Long Islanders’ wastewater into a sewage treatment plant, which then sends the treated water out to sea is the option that many politicians rush to, but is it the best solution? Best maybe in the short term, but not in the long term.

The oceans are not doing so well either. Who knows how much longer they can handle the effluent of 7.5 billion people.

So what’s really going on? There’s some kind of high-powered trickle-down philosophy in the glory of progress, to build and develop, build and develop, build and develop. It is as if, should you stop for a moment, the momentum will be lost and gone forever and you won’t be able to start up again. The civilization dies. So, we have big ideas like the Ronkonkoma hub, a 75,000-seat arena nearby, plans for a major expansion of the Nassau County hub, the expansion of the Belmont track area to include a hockey rink stadium.

Such grandiose plans for Long Island’s future all come with the addition of thousands of condominium units, hundreds of housing developments, more large estate houses, and scads of work force housing. Yes, these are in the wings now and only on paper, but as we speak, that paper is trickling down through the various boards until finally it is all to be stamped and certified, and then let the construction begin. Build, build, build orders are coming down from the highest echelons of government, federal to state to county and on down to you and me. And it’s not just the Republicans, it’s a conspiracy involving all parties, denominations, and races, and nursed along by a comparatively few but very powerful individuals.

In the meanwhile, what will happen to the alewife, the American eel, and the tiger salamander? We should be able to find a few in aquariums and zoos. Remember the prediction of Pitirim Sorokin, that Western civilization is now in a post-ideological stage, what he called the “sensate,” and that the next stage is “decadence.” Or put another way as Cyndi Lauper used to sing, we “just want to have fun.”

Larry Penny can be reached via email at