The State Department of Environmental Conservation brushed aside a deluge of objections from East Hampton Town officials and the Suffolk County Water Authority and issued a permit to the owner of a sand mine in East Hampton to dig down another 110 feet, piercing the water table and creating what will become a 6-acre lake of exposed groundwater.
On March 11, the DEC approved the application for the additional excavation of sand by Sand Highway LLC, the corporate name of the mine under which Patrick Bistrian Jr. owns the 14.5-acre property off Middle Highway in East Hampton.
When the DEC ruled last summer that it saw no potential for environmental harm by the proposal to create the 100-foot-deep, 6-acre lake by digging into sand saturated with flowing groundwater, the town, the water authority and environmental groups like the Group for the East End immediately leveled fierce criticism at the proposal and the state’s environmental regulator for even considering such a proposal.
The property, critics have pointed out, lies within what is known as a Special Groundwater Protection Area: a state designation that indicates it is a region containing critical drinking water supplies and that extra precautions should be taken to guard against contamination.
“You have to wonder why they are called the Department of Environmental Conservation, when they do this kind of thing,” East Hampton Town Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc said this week. “It’s completely contrary to their mission statement.”
The town had already hired attorneys to review the Sand Highway application last fall, and on Wednesday he said the town was discussing options to oppose the application further.
“Procedurally, we believe there were a number of issues and that [the State Environmental Quality Review Act] was not followed,” Mr. Van Scoyoc said. “We think it should be considered a serious threat to our drinking water.”
The SCWA objected because it maintains two drinking water wells less than a mile from the site, downgradient, that supply water to thousands of homes.
“This sand mining facility is located up-gradient of two existing SCWA public supply well pump stations, one on Spring Close Highway and the other on Oakview Highway,” water authority CEO Jeffrey Szabo wrote to the DEC last October in opposition to the application by Mr. Bistrian. “The existing sand, gravel and clay act as a natural barrier to prevent contamination from going deeper into the aquifer. When materials that make up this barrier are removed, the protection of the aquifer is reduced or lost altogether.”
But the DEC has taken the firm stance that allowing sand to be mined from below groundwater, leaving the still flowing groundwater table exposed to the air, does not pose a contamination threat. There are at least three other mines in Suffolk County that have been granted permission to create lakes through mining in groundwater.
“DEC is committed to conducting a thorough environmental review of the proposed mining permit application submitted by Sand Highway LLC, to ensure the continued protection of natural resources, including water quality, and public health,” a written agency statement sent to The Press last fall said. “DEC continues to provide rigorous oversight of the mine operations to ensure it meets the existing permit requirements that are protective of the environment.”
The division of the DEC that oversees and regulates mining operations has butted heads with local municipalities and environmental groups for years for what critics say is an astonishingly pro-business stance by the state’s sole environmental regulatory agency.
Neighbors have long lobbied the town to use the Community Preservation Fund to purchase the Sand Highway property to end the mining use. Until 2016, the property was owned by David L. Talmage’s family, who turned down offers to purchase it, but had only mined a fraction of the sand allowed under the current permits. When the Bistrian company took over sometime in 2016 or 2017, the mining operations were expanded significantly.
Aerial photos of the mine show that the breadth of the excavated area appears to have roughly doubled since 2016, creeping closer to neighboring homes, and is now nearing the limits of the mining permits that were first issued for the property.
Neighbor Nanci LaGarenne said she hopes that the town will take the matter to court and seek an injunction against the mining company moving forward.
“I am incensed that the DEC would approve such a wrong move on their part to put our sole source aquifer in danger by approving drilling 110 more feet into the groundwater … while we are all suffering a national health crisis like nothing the country has seen since World War II,” Ms. LaGarenne said. “And, quite sneakily, not notifying the Town of East Hampton nor publicly giving the townspeople a chance to oppose it — which we do vehemently, and so does the town. How dare they.”