Nature Notes: The Pits
Every resident of Southampton Town knows about the notorious sandpit with the euphonious name Sand Land situated at the end of Middle Line Highway next to Golf at the Bridge in Noyac.
Year after year for the last 20-plus years sandy soil from this spot at the top of the moraine has been excavated and used for this or that purpose. The demand for sand has been so great that the pit has exhausted almost all of its sand resources and the owner began accepting leaves, tree trunks, and other organic material in order to fill the pit as prescribed by the New York State permit governed by the State Department of Environmental Conservation’s rules and regulations regarding mining sand. Once out of granular materials, a sandpit has to be reclaimed by filling it with clean natural materials, but not nonorganic refuse or junk.
Before the Sand Land pit was begun, an older pit came into being in the second half of the 20th century in Wainscott. If you drive through this hamlet you can hardly miss it. It’s north of Montauk Highway and snugly between the well-traveled Wainscott Northwest Road on the west and the much smaller Hedges Lane on the east.
I am well familiar with both of these sandpits. I pass the first one every time I take Millstone Road, which runs north from Scuttlehole Road and stops at Noyac Road on the other side of the terminal moraine. While I worked for the East Hampton Town Natural Resources Department, I would periodically check out the Wainscott one, as it was part of the immediate watershed for Georgica Pond.
The Wainscott sandpit ran out of sand when the excavation reached groundwater, the same groundwater layer that is part of the upper glacial aquifer and provides the freshwater in Georgica Pond. The late Stuart Vorpahl used to say that when he drove past the Wainscott pit in midspring or midfall and there was little water to be seen at the bottom of it, he knew the town trustees had let Georgica Pond out. The groundwaters between the two areas were intimately connected.
The longstanding Noyac organization, the Noyac Civic Council, has existed since the early 1980s and for the last several years has been led by Elena Loreto. The council has kept a close eye on Sand Land and has recruited the aid of the Group for the East End and the Citizens Campaign for the Environment, led respectively by Bob DeLuca and Adrienne Esposito. It became obvious to Elena and other members of the council that Sand Land was beginning to fill the pit with materials not prescribed in its D.E.C. permit. Day after day, big truck after big truck would come to the pit with noncompliant materials, she noticed.
Their fears were heightened by knowledge of the fact that the groundwater level in that area was the highest on the South Fork east of the Shinnecock Canal and that people’s private well water and the much deeper Suffolk County Water Authority wells south of the pit could become contaminated by such activity. Keep in mind that 20 years earlier, several wells around the Noyac Golf Course to the northwest of Sand Land had become polluted and unpotable from chemicals used on the golf course.
Finally the council began to prevail with respect to the pit accepting polluted materials and the Southampton Town authorities began to ticket those trucks carrying them into the facility. A judge however dismissed all of those tickets; apparently only New York State had the power to impose them, and the D.E.C. was absent without leave. The owner then applied to expand the sand mine, as there was still need for such granular materials, but the civic council and the town objected. The permit request may still be under consideration.
With pressure applied by Elena and her group, as well as the Group for the East End and Adrienne Esposito, the Suffolk County Health Department installed test wells and the degree to which the underlying groundwater was polluted came to light. It is quite probable at this juncture that the owner’s appeal to expand will be denied and the Sand Land operation will be put to bed permanently.
Meanwhile, in East Hampton Town, the Wainscott sandpit that held a pond that was edged by freshwater wetlands, and thus was a protected area according to the town code, sits in limbo. I was asked by then-supervisor Jay Schneiderman’s administration in 2003 to mark the eastern edge of the wetlands adjoining the sandpit pond and did so. It was more than 100 feet west of Hedges Lane, as I remember. Finally, we have learned, that the Wainscott sandpit has been a focus of the same hamlet study consultant group that suggested moving downtown Montauk up the hill to save it from flooding.
This consultancy floated a plan for mixed-use development of the sandpit that could include recreation and open space, home improvement and other businesses, relocated commercial-industrial uses, a solar farm, a shared parking lot, and possibly modest affordable housing.
To date, however, no one has been examining the pit fillings in the same way that the Noyac sandpit was examined by the County Health Department. Who knows what’s buried there? It’s time for the State Legislature to enact legislation that will give the local municipalities control over sand mines within their jurisdictions. Otherwise, we can only anticipate more serious pollution problems with respect to groundwater and, in the case of the Wainscott sandpit, continued contribution of pollutants to Georgica Pond, which may be dying and is seriously dystrophic.
Larry Penny can be reached via email at Larrypenny9@gmail.com.