Editorial: Facing Yard-Waste Reality

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An explosion in residential landscaping in recent years, and a decline in the number of businesses accepting wood, brush and leaf material for disposal, has left the Town of Southampton handling a burgeoning volume of yard waste.

At the town’s Hampton Bays disposal facility, it’s already more than state regulations allow for what the Department of Environmental Conservation calls a “regulated” facility, one that is supposed to handle no more than 10,000 cubic yards a year. The town’s two other yard waste facilities in North Sea and Westhampton are also beginning to push the limits.

Town engineer Christine Fetten made the situation clear to the Town Board and public back in July, when she explained at a Town Board work session that the DEC has “invited” the town to develop plans to upgrade the Hampton Bays site so it can qualify as a “permitted” facility, as the DEC calls it: one that process more than 10,000 cubic yards of vegetative waste a year. Under newly developed state regulations, the town would have to install a concrete pad to prevent leachate from reaching groundwater as well as groundwater monitoring wells, among other environmental protections depending on the permeability of the soil — upgrades that are clearly necessary and also quite costly.

After her presentation, the town sought proposals from consultants to develop the necessary plans. Ms. Fetten is now working with Stuart Buckner of Buckner Environmental Associates of East Islip “to help us with our operational and maintenance plan as well as an overall review of our facilities,” she said in an interview last month. That review will include options to twin future operations at the yard waste facilities with the town’s commitment to renewable energy — such as a solar array, perhaps, if a roof must be erected to shield yard-waste operations from rainfall.

As the town works to catch up with the reality of its yard-waste burdens, the state is also entering a new era of awareness. The environmental threat of vegetative waste collection and composting has been recognized only recently. Tainted by pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers and other chemicals, the stuff — left in the open air piled on sandy soil — passes it poisons onto rainwater as it filters onto and into the ground, eventually reaching the aquifer, our region’s only source of drinking water.

John Tintle, owner of the Wainscott Sand & Gravel mine in Noyac, had good reason to call local officials hypocrites for joining the chorus of residents decrying his commercial vegetative waste operation and demanding it be shut down in the face of concerns over groundwater contamination. Government leaders have a responsibility to hold private business owners accountable when there is even the potential that public health or safety is at risk, but they should also be held to the same standard, if not a greater one.

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