Editorial: State DEC report on minority communities is important

It might not come as a surprise to many who closely follow environmental issues impacting the region, but state officials have formally designated 87 mostly minority neighborhoods in 40 Long Island communities as being disproportionately impacted by pollution and ever-worsening climate change.

These neighborhoods are labeled by the state Department of Environmental Conservation as “disadvantaged” and they include parts of Riverhead Town and Flanders, on the south side of the Peconic River that is part of Southampton Town.

These areas, along with more than 1,700 statewide, will be at the front of the line for funding as the state’s critically needed efforts to increase green energy production proceed.

Climate change is no longer coming. It is here. We have written of this issue many times in this space, as the North Fork is particularly vulnerable. Full moons and nor’easters routinely flood streets and parts of neighborhoods across the North Fork that have never experienced this before. 

On a map, the North Fork looks like a bony, arthritic finger pointing out into the Atlantic Ocean, with some parts of it so narrow that Long Island Sound and Peconic Bay are mere yards apart during high-water events. 

Washovers of the Orient-East Marion Causeway have cut off the eastern hamlets from the mainland. You could practically throw a rock from the Southold Town Beach on Route 48 to the top of Hashamomuck Pond, which drains into Peconic Bay under Route 25. Only narrow slivers of land on the north and south side of the pond keep the land east of it from becoming an island. The Peconic River has flooded the parking lot behind Riverhead’s business district during storms that have coincided with high tides. The Town Board’s ambitious plans for its downtown must take this into consideration.

Everyone who lives in Riverhead and Southold — and across the South Fork as well — should be asking their public officials what the long-range plan is for dealing with climate change. There are hundreds of homes in both Southold and Riverhead perched at the edge of salt water. Previous storms have damaged dozens of them. 

The owners rebuild, hoping for a few more years to enjoy their property before it happens again. And it will happen again. At some point — this seems inevitable — the process of pulling back from the shoreline will have to begin in earnest. How all of this — along with the raising of roadbeds — will be paid for is an open question.

But the real strength of the DEC report is what it says about minority communities across Long Island, including in Riverhead and Flanders, which has long been labeled as disadvantaged in many ways. Flanders is in Southampton Town, which contains one of the wealthiest ZIP codes in America; that wealth has never come to Flanders, where some houses are still on dirt roads.

As reported by Newsday, Alanah Keddell-Tuckey, the DEC’s director of its Office of Environmental Justice, summed it up this way: “When we look at the higher burden of gas emissions, air burden and pollution, there’s a direct correlation between lower-income communities and communities of color with higher pollution burdens,” she said. “It’s important these communities are finally being recognized. They are being targeted for large-scale industrial projects, landfills and heavy traffic, and have been bearing a higher burden of environmental pollution.”

State law now mandates that these communities receive at least 35% of future state funding for clean energy investments, pollution reduction and energy assistance. This is very good news for Riverhead and Flanders.

Wealthy neighborhoods are never home to landfills; poorer neighbors are. But wealthy neighborhoods of million-dollar-plus homes with water views are threatened by rising sea levels. So, in this sense, the haves and the have-nots find themselves with common interests going forward.