A Call for Pressure to Shut Down Sand Land

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New York State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr., left, at last week's Noyac Civic Council meeting. Peter Boody photos

Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. expressed astonishment on Tuesday that the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) hasn’t acknowledged a recent county water quality report as damning evidence that the Wainscott Sand and Gravel Corporation sand mine — also known as Sand Land — off Millstone Road in Noyac is polluting groundwater in the area.

“The DEC’s position is inexplicable to a rational person,” Mr. Thiele told a packed meeting room at the Noyac Schoolhouse, where the Noyac Civic Council was holding its monthly meeting.

Mr. Thiele was reacting to an August 16 letter from DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos to the leaders of the Noyac Civic Council, the Group for the East End and the Citizens Campaign for the Environment who had jointly written Governor Cuomo on August 6 complaining the DEC’s regulation of the site has been ineffective and urging that the DEC reject the mine operator’s expected application for a permit renewal in light of the county report.

Commissioner Seggos makes no mention of water quality issues in his response. He wrote that the “DEC has inspected the facility numerous times over the last several years and will continue to inspect the site … to ensure that the facility remains in compliance with applicable laws, regulations, and permits, and will aggressively pursue any violations.”

He also noted that the mine owner has agreed “to stop accepting brush, vegetative waste, concrete, brick, asphalt, and any other masonry debris as of September 1” and “will clean up all such material from the site by October 31.”

Mr. Thiele joined County Legislator Bridget Fleming, Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman and Suffolk County Department of Health Services hydrologist Ronald Paulsen as guests at the meeting to discuss the Sand Land mine and the DEC five-year operating permit, which is due to expire in November. The operator, John B. Tintle, already has an application pending with the state to dig deeper for sand than the current permit allows.

The mine, which dates to the early 1960s, operates as a pre-existing, non-conforming use in a five-acre residential zone and has a certificate of occupancy from the Town of Southampton acknowledging its legal status as a mine.

Mr. Tintle said during an interview on Tuesday that his own hydrologist has found no groundwater pollution under the mine except at one test well located very close to the adjacent The Bridge Golf Club and subdivision — and far from where the mine processed vegetation or concrete on its property. He sees the golf course as the likely source of the iron and manganese found there. He confirmed he will be applying to renew the mine’s DEC permit by the October deadline.

John Tintle during a tour of Sand Land on Tuesday.

Ms. Fleming expressed her fear at the meeting Tuesday that, “Really, the danger is the DEC is going to renew the permit.”

Despite a long legal battle that Mr. Tintle fought before allowing the county access to perform water quality testing, she said, the DEC was treating an unsigned email from him as a promise to stop accepting vegetative waste and construction debris, according to what Ms. Fleming said Terry Meek Gallagher, the regional DEC administrator, had told her in a recent conversation.

“We need something real with regard to this commitment. An email will not hold water,” she said. She added that Ms. Gallagher “will not concede it was proven that organic waste” collected at the mine “is causing the pollution.”

In the DEC commissioner’s August 16 letter, “it sounds like he’s a nice guy,” Supervisor Schneiderman said of Mr. Tintle, whom he noted is suing the town and him personally for writing the DEC in July that sand mining is not a permitted use anywhere in the Town of Southampton. In his suit, Mr. Tintle alleges the supervisor’s letter was part of “A campaign to interfere with” his “use and quiet enjoyment” of his property and an infringement of his constitutional rights “of property use and ownership.” According to Mr. Tintle, the supervisor was asked to specifically address whether sand mining was permitted on his property, not throughout the town. Mr. Tintle does have a pre-existing, non-conforming right to mine sand, according to his certificate of occupancy.

Mr. Paulson, the county hydrologist, said he was puzzled “why there’s this non-acceptance” on the DEC’s part to acknowledge the county’s water quality report. The three elected officials all agreed there was no question the Sand Land mine is causing groundwater pollution and called on the Civic Council members to put pressure on the DEC to reject the renewal application by contacting Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office.

“It’s the governor’s DEC,” Mr. Thiele said. “The way this administration works,” no state agency “does anything without consulting the governor’s office.”

“The fact is this can end very quickly if the DEC decides not to issue the renewal,” Mr. Thiele said after charging that the mine company’s legal strategy was to keep fighting on so many fronts that his opponents won’t be able to keep up. “I get confused and I’m a lawyer,” Mr. Thiele said, having noted that the company had cases pending in State Supreme Court, before a DEC administrative law judge and in Southampton Town Justice Court.

In its report issued on June 29, the Suffolk County Department of Health Services said it had found iron and manganese levels that “significantly exceed drinking water and groundwater standards in multiple wells. Manganese exceeded the standards by almost 100 times and iron by over 200 times.” The department also found thallium, sodium, nitrate, ammonia, and gross alpha in levels that exceed standards for drinking water and groundwater in 21 test wells installed at the 50-acre site.

At the Civic Council meeting on Tuesday, Mr. Thiele called the report “a turning point” in the town’s ongoing legal battles against the mining and waste management operation. “We now know the facts. There is pollution beneath the sand mine,” he said.

“This has to stop,” he added. “The DEC for years has done perfunctory and superficial inspections” and “rubber-stamped” the mine owner’s operations. “We need the DEC to act,” he said, calling its response “pathetic” to the August 7 letter from the council president, Elena Loretta; Group for the East End president Robert DeLuca; and Citizens campaign for the Environment Executive Director Adrienne Esposito.

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Peter Boody is news editor of The Sag Harbor Express. Previously he was the editor of the Southampton Press for many years and also edited several other papers, including the Shelter Island Reporter and the East Hampton Press, of which he was founding editor. He was a regular correspondent for the New York Times Long Island section and wrote the novel “Thomas Jefferson, Rachel & Me.”