The back-and-forth legal battle between Southampton Town, environmentalists, and neighbors with Sand Land, the sand mine and recycling facility run by Wainscott Sand and Gravel off Millstone Road in Noyac, took a sharp turn in Sand Land’s favor recently when an Albany court upheld an expanded mining permit that was issued to the company in early 2019.
In a September 3 decision, State Supreme Court Justice James Ferreira rejected an effort by the town and its allies, including Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. and the environmental organization, The Group for the South Fork, to overturn the permit issued by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation in March of last year, which allows Sand Land to excavate 40 feet deeper to a depth of 120 feet above sea level and operate for another eight years.
Just six months before that decision, it appeared Sand Land was on the ropes when the DEC announced in October 2018 it would not renew the company’s mining permit and would give it a strict deadline for shutting down its operations and reclaiming the roughly 50-acre site.
The property has also been used for other activities, including the mulching of brush and other vegetation and the recycling of construction debris, that the town Zoning Board of Appeals ruled were illegal expansions of the business.
More recently, the town has focused on threats to the groundwater after the Suffolk County Department of Health Services issued a study that found the groundwater under the mine was contaminated, but Sand Land denied that it was responsible for that pollution and pointed to the work of its own consultants as proof of that.
“For over a decade, Assemblyman Thiele, the Bridge golf club, and the Town of Southampton, among other petitioners, have sought to shutter a family business that has played a pivotal role in the local economy for generations,” Brian Matthews, Sand Land’s attorney, said in a press release. He charged that much of that campaign “centered upon the false claims that Sand Land has negatively impacted the aquifer.”
Mr. Matthews said the ruling showed that it was time for the town to stop fighting Sand Land and focus instead on meeting DEC standards at its own recycling operations at North Sea, Hampton Bays, and Westhampton, where it processes vegetative waste into mulch.
He pointed out that the judge also ruled that Mr. Thiele, who has been a vocal critic of Sand Land, did not have the right, or standing, to take part in the suit as an assemblyman.
“This was clearly a victory for them,” Mr. Thiele said on Monday of the decision to approve the permit. “I think the judge was wrong on the facts, wrong on the law, and wrong on the science.”
Although Mr. Thiele said he was disappointed by the judge’s ruling that he did not have standing, he said there were plenty of other plaintiffs on board who would soon be filing an appeal.
Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman in a text message said he supported an appeal, and Town Attorney James Burke said on Monday the Town Board had already decided to join that effort.
Mr. Burke said that while he understood some of the judge’s points, others “conflicted with the DEC administrative judge” who earlier denied the permit. He said under state law, sandmining in and of itself is not automatically considered an environmental hazard, but that when other activities, such as mulching, are added to the mix, red flags appear. He said it appeared the judge gave particular weight to the fact that Sand Land has agreed to give up mulching and recycling construction debris.
“It’s still a bit of a mystery how in a four-month period, the DEC went from ‘we are shutting you down’ to extending it for eight years,” he said.
For Mr. Matthews, the ruling was straight forward. He said that when the DEC two years ago informed Sand Land it would not renew the permit, opponents seized on that announcement as a sign that the decision was final, when, in fact, Sand Land had the right to respond to the concerns raised by the DEC.
Sand Land’s geologists were able to demonstrate to the DEC that there was sufficient sand remaining for the mine to remain viable, satisfying one concern, he said.
More importantly, though, he said groundwater studies undertaken by Sand Land and a review of the county studies by the federal Environmental Protection Agency backed the company’s position that it was not responsible for the pollution.
“Groundwater is a real issue for people out here,” he said. “It’s an easy issue to get people’s attention, but it has been discredited” as a reason to close the mine.
Mr. Matthews said that Sand Land has been targeted by wealthy — and new neighbors , including the Bridge golf club, which besides having a golf course has a number of housing lots that back up to the Sand Land site. They have succeeded in getting the town to wage their battle for them.
Mr. Burke denied the town is working solely on the golf club’s behalf. “Have I heard from the Bridge? Sure. And I’ve also heard from the civic association,” he said. “All we want them to do is comply,” adding that Sand Land should get credit for taking steps to clean up the site.
But he added, “Are those people going to be happy until they’re closed? Probably not.”
Mr. Matthews added that the town should now focus on its own recycling facilities, which process leaves and brush into mulch and which, he said, are closer to the groundwater than Sand Land.