Rising Amount of Yard Waste Forces Town to Look at Stricter Rules

Composting windrows at the 7-acre yard waste processing site in foreground at Southampton Town's Hampton Bays municipal complex. Peter Boody photo

There’s no way to know for certain that magnesium, iron and other pollutants aren’t contaminating the groundwater under the Town of Southampton’s three busy yard-waste collection and composting sites in North Sea, Westhampton and Hampton Bays.

As commercial brush processing facilities have been closing due to tougher state waste-handling regulations imposed in 2017, the town’s three sites have all come under increasing pressure to handle rising amounts of leaves and brush. All that residential yard waste may be tainted with pesticides, herbicides and other chemicals.

This year the town has exceeded the 10,000 cubic yards-per-year maximum amount of yard waste the state allows it to handle at the Hampton Bays facility and it’s close to the limit in North Sea and Westhampton.

“The town is overwhelmed already,” commented Supervisor Jay Schneiderman in a November interview. But he knows groundwater pollution isn’t an issue, he has said, because monitoring wells the town maintains at its closed landfill in North Sea show the yard processing facility there isn’t causing problems.

Those wells were set up to test groundwater at the landfill’s three closed, lined and capped mixed-solid-waste collection cells, not the adjacent leaf and brush processing area where yard waste is composted and eventually sold as lower quality, unscreened mulch.

The state does not require groundwater monitoring at smaller, “registered” yard waste facilities, those that handle less than 10,000 cubic yards of waste per year. Sites that handle more must obtain designation as a “permitted” facility under the state’s rules, and that requires more environmental protections including groundwater monitoring and the installation of concrete pads to prevent leachate from entering the soil.

The rules are part of the state’s regulations for handling all types of waste, known as Part 360 of the Environmental Conservation Law, which was updated in 2017.

The Sand Land company’s controversial Wainscott Sand & Gravel mine, a pre-existing, non-conforming use from the 1960s in a five-acre residential zone off Millstone Road and Middle Line Highway in Noyac, is one of the commercial facilities that has left the vegetative waste collection and processing business.

At the town’s facilities, only brush limited to leaves and wood pieces no larger than three inches in diameter is accepted from homeowners and their hired landscapers. Sand Land also handled larger scale commercial site-clearing debris, including tree stumps.

Under pressure from the county, state and town, which has long argued that Sand Land had no pre-existing right to process vegetative waste, owner John Tintle this fall stopped accepting vegetative waste in Noyac. And after the town ticketed him for a minor violation at the site, which he considered harassment, Mr. Tintle also stopped accepted vegetative waste at another facility he owns in East Quogue known as East Coast Mining.

Local commercial land clearers and tree services have had to travel farther to dispose of large-scale wood and brush the town won’t accept. “It’s not a complete crisis,” said landscaper Chris Cafiero, who also does tree work. “We just have to go a little further.” He said there were private vegetative waste processors, smaller than Mr. Tintle’s operation was, in Southampton and Hampton, including Steven Mezynieski’s Southampton Excavation in Tuckahoe and Bistrian Gravel Corporation in Springs.

Mr. Tintle insists his Noyac operation — which faces closure and reclamation because the state DEC has declined to renew its mining permit or grant a new one — has not caused any groundwater pollution. He blames the adjacent Golf at the Bridge subdivision’s private golf course for pollution detected by only one of his own groundwater monitoring wells at the edge of the mine property.

But when the Suffolk County Department of Health Services drilled its own wells and tested the groundwater under the mine last year, it found widespread evidence of elevated levels of manganese, iron, thallium, sodium, ammonia and other contaminants. In its report, the county found that the facility’s operations — which once included the processing of construction debris until it was ruled to have been an illegal use — “have had significant adverse impacts to groundwater” at the site.

While insisting the county’s report is flawed, Mr. Tintle has asked why the county, town and state — if they are so keen on protecting groundwater from pollution — haven’t aggressively investigated the impacts of the town’s own yard waste facilities.

After Mr. Schneiderman was quoted in the press last summer saying groundwater quality was not a problem at the town’s yard waste sites, Mr. Tintle filed a Freedom of Information Law request for the town’s groundwater data. His request was denied by the town on the grounds that there is no such data.

Mr. Schneiderman said later that Mr. Tintle had “asked for the wrong thing.” Mr. Tintle should have asked for the water quality reports regularly submitted to the DEC for its closed landfill in North Sea, he said.

Robert DeLuca, president of the Group for the East End, the regional environmental lobbying organization, said in an interview that the yard waste sites themselves should be tested directly. “Those facilities should have groundwater monitoring systems,” he said. “And in most cases, they should get contained on a pad” to prevent leachate from reaching groundwater.

He noted that groundwater pollution at Sand Land is indicative of a regional problem. “No doubt, the management of vegetative waste is an issue Island-wide,” he said.

When the state in the 1980s forced Long Island municipalities to close their landfills as threats to the region’s sole source aquifer, 20 percent of the waste stream was vegetative matter. “That wasn’t treated the same way as [mixed] solid waste,” or household garbage, which is now sent away for incineration or landfilling out of state, minus recyclables and vegetative waste. The collection and processing of vegetative material “wasn’t properly planned,” Mr. DeLuca added, but he noted the state is now “on the verge having to design a protocol for how to handle it going forward.”

He was referring to DEC Commissioner Basil Seggo’s announcement last summer that the state was implementing “a new comprehensive strategy to address the potential environmental impacts of mulching and composting operations at waste management facilities on Long Island,” according to the DEC. “The strategy is designed to address potential impacts including fires, dust, odor, and groundwater impacts.”

One reason for the DEC’s heightened concern was a lawsuit filed in 2015 over groundwater and air pollution caused by a large-scale commercial composting operation in Yaphank.

“It seems to me the DEC is going to have to play a larger role” in regulating the processing and disposal of waste, including vegetative waste, said Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. He agreed “everybody should have to play by the same rules” and that any vegetative collection and processing site has potential environmental impacts, as shown by the Yaphank and the Sand Land cases.

“The state has been in the process now for the last two years finally upgrading its regulations for what these facilities have to have,” including concrete pads and leachate collection systems. “I think the town or Sand Land or whoever, whether public or private,” has to abide by “the rules and they need to be more stringent” than anyone may have realized in the past.

He noted that the town collection sites are conducted at ground level while Sand Land conducted its operations on land after it “stripping away sand” to below grade, removing an essential filter and exacerbating the pollution threat, he said.

“But rules are rules and they need to get more stringent,” Mr. Thiele added. Furthermore, he said, “The town needs to lead by example.”

Town engineer and director of municipal works Christine Fetten told the Southampton Town Board last summer that its yard waste collection center in Hampton Bays was exceeding the 10,000 cubic-yard-per-year limit. She said the DEC had “invited us to make a decision” whether or not to bring the facility into compliance by reducing the amount of yard waste it handled or by applying to the DEC to consider it a “permitted” facility.

Making it a permitted facility, she said, would require submitting a detailed plan to the DEC that would have to include the installation of groundwater monitoring wells to detect pollution in order “to see what’s going on” under the site, she said.

The plan would also have to provide for the installation of a proper base, depending on the type of soil there; a detailed description of “the source quality and quantity of waste,” she said; as well as provisions for odor control, proper storage and composting of yard waste and storm water runoff management.

She told the board that, with its permission, she would draft a request for proposals from firms that could prepare the plan and handle the application to the DEC for the town. She said the DEC had a set a deadline of November 4 for the town to file its application. The DEC has since extended the deadline as the town works with a consultant to develop its mitigation plans and prepare its application.

“The DEC is working with the town of Southampton to address capacity issues at their town-owned facilities,” a DEC source acknowledged. “Recent studies have indicated that when the precipitation and surface water are not properly addressed at vegetative organic waste management sites, it can impact groundwater, and DEC continues to evaluate the latest science to address any necessary actions that are needed to protect water quality on Long Island.”