In a decision that could mean the closure of the Sand Land sand mine in Noyac, a five-judge panel of the Appellate Division of the State Supreme Court has overturned the mining permit issued two years ago by the State Department of Environmental Conservation.
Sand Land is a 50-acre site off Millstone Road in Noyac that is operated by Wainscott Sand and Gravel. Originally just a sand mine, the operation was expanded over the years to include other uses, including the processing of brush and stumps into compost and the recycling of construction and demolition debris.
The company has been in the crosshairs of Southampton Town, environmental groups and neighbors since the Southampton Town Zoning Board of Appeals ruled in 2012 that it could continue to operate as a sand mine, but had to eliminate most of its side businesses.
A series of court cases followed, with Sand Land eventually obtaining a permit from the DEC to continue mining in 2019, and the town winning an injunction in 2020 to force the closure of the composing and construction debris recycling operations.
State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. and Southampton Town Attorney James Burke both hailed the Appellate Court’s ruling for acknowledging that the DEC did not have the authority to issue mining permits in towns whose zoning codes prohibit the activity, as Southampton’s does. That state law only applies to counties with populations of more than 1 million people who draw their water from a sole-source aquifer, which effectively limits it to Long Island.
“When it interpreted the statute, the DEC ignored the fact that the town told it mining was prohibited, and it issued the permit anyway,” said Mr. Thiele. “The DEC broke the law, and there is no other way to put it. The DEC put the polluter ahead of the environment and the public.”
Mr. Burke, who was out of town this week, said in a brief text message that it was a “great decision for the town and the aquifer.” He said the court was the first to recognize the town’s authority to prohibit mining and added that the ruling appears to disregard any ability of the company to argue that its operation is permissible as a nonconforming use under the code.
Mr. Thiele said Sand Land could appeal the decision to the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, but would have to receive permission to do so, because four of the five judges on the Appellate Court panel ruled against it.
Brian Matthews, Sand Land’s attorney, did not reply to requests for comment this week.
Despite the ruling, Bob DeLuca, the president of the Group for the East End, said via email this week that surveillance photos taken from the neighboring Bridge golf club property showed that operations were continuing at the site. He called on the town, the Suffolk County district attorney’s office and the DEC to conduct a joint enforcement action to shut down the operation.
The ruling was a long time in coming, he said. “It is deeply troubling that it took years of legal advocacy by the public, civic and environmental organizations, elected leaders, and Suffolk County health officials to simply get DEC to do its job, follow the law, and protect our precious groundwater resources from contamination,” he said.
Although the town won court rulings against the side businesses, Sand Land eventually found an ally in the DEC, which ultimately agreed to renew its mining permit in 2019 after a five-year back-and-forth battle.
In September 2018, a year after water tests conducted by the Suffolk County Department of Health Services found high levels of iron, manganese, and other contaminants, the DEC announced it would not renew Sand Land’s permit, which was set to expire at the end of that month.
That decision was cheered by Sand Land’s opponents. But the company appealed, and in February 2019 the DEC reversed its position and issued an eight-year extension of the company’s permit and allowed it to mine 40 feet deeper and closer to the aquifer.
Last year, the town won an injunction prohibiting Sand Land from processing vegetative waste and construction and demolition debris, but a lower court upheld the mining permit, and that ruling remained in place until this week’s decision.
“I was disappointed when the lower court ruled against the town’s position,” said Supervisor Jay Schneiderman. “But now the Appellate Court, a five-judge panel, has voted overwhelmingly in favor of the town by reversing the lower court’s decision. This is a big win for Southampton Town and an even bigger win for the environment. The Appellate Division has reaffirmed the town’s ability to safeguard the purity of our drinking water supply, a precious natural resource.”
“We will always fight to protect the purity of our drinking water for the well-being of our residents and to maintain the quality of the sole source aquifer so that it can be preserved for future generations,” added Councilman Tommy John Schiavoni. “I applaud the decision handed down by the New York Supreme Court Appellate Division. It affirms the town’s authority to protect its residents by safeguarding the water supply.”
Councilman Schiavoni recently sponsored legislation that requires those operating mine sites within the town to monitor the groundwater impacts at such sites.