06/13/14 7:00am
06/13/2014 7:00 AM
Dave Colone, Chairman of Suffolk County Planning Commissioner; Adrienne Esposito, Executive Director of the Citizens Campaign for the Environment; Bob Delucca, President and CEO of the Group for the East End, County Executive Steve Bellone, Dick Amper, Executive Director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society and Deputy Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory. (Courtesy photo)

Dave Colone, Chairman of Suffolk County Planning Commissioner; Adrienne Esposito, Executive Director of the Citizens Campaign for the Environment; Bob Delucca, President and CEO of the Group for the East End, County Executive Steve Bellone, Dick Amper, Executive Director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society and Deputy Presiding Officer DuWayne Gregory. (Courtesy photo)

Not once, but twice, this newspaper has wagged its finger at Suffolk County government for dipping into its Drinking Water Protection Program without just cause, using the voter-approved preservation dollars to balance its general fund books.

Environmental groups responded to the county’s actions with litigation.

Now, a proposed settlement to those lawsuits has emerged that would give the cash-strapped county the much-needed flexibility to borrow from the fund for the next few years and require it to repay the money from 2018 through 2029.

The county Legislature must approve the deal and, if that happens, it will go to a countywide vote via referendum.

The deal should be approved by both the Legislature and the general public.

Is it perfect? No. The county should not have taken the money in the first place. Should some punishment, in the form of some interest repayment to the fund, arguably be in store? And could environmentalists squeeze some more from the county through the agreement? Perhaps.

But as with any compromise, this one leaves both sides relatively satisfied, yet unsatisfied.

Most important, however, it allows the government to move forward and focus on the myriad other problems it faces.

Debt-laden Suffolk County has been up a financial creek for years. It’s used quite a lot of paddles and is starting to run out of them. It’s sold buildings to only start renting them back, dropped the prices of buildings currently for sale by millions of dollars and laid off hundreds of employees to try to balance its budget. So when one line within that budget is found to have a surplus of nearly $140 million — even though it’s a fund reserved for county residents’ most valuable resource — borrowing from it with the explicit agreement that it will be paid back beats plugging a hole with debt payments, plus interest.

The county’s projected deficit in 2015 is already expected to be lower than it was coming into this year, so this agreement could indeed be pivotal to getting back into the black.

On the other hand, it’s hard not to see where environmentalists came from when they filed the lawsuits. This deal simply returns all of the funds the county took from the Drinking Water Protection Program, while red-lighting any future changes to the fund without voter approval.

Both are actions environmentalists have called for from the start.

It might not seem that environmentalists are getting very much in the deal, but securing the county’s promise in writing to pay back every cent it borrowed is an achievement on its own. Keep in mind that last fall, the legislation county leaders passed to authorize more borrowing from the fund merely stated it was “the intent of the Legislature to replenish the [fund] beginning in the fiscal year 2017.”

If the county executive would start by proposing a modest increase in county property taxes — a small portion of the average homeowners’ tax bill — it might obviate the need for further borrowing and show real dedication to closing that budget gap and replenishing the Drinking Water Protection Program.

12/10/13 1:19pm
12/10/2013 1:19 PM
CARRIE MILLER PHOTO | Newly-purchased fire hydrants may have to be sold for scrap if new federal regulations aren't changed or put on delay.

CARRIE MILLER PHOTO | Newly-purchased fire hydrants may have to be sold for scrap if new federal regulations aren’t changed or put on delay.

Stockpiles of fire hydrants previously purchased by local water districts could soon be useless following the enactment of new federal standards for lead used in infrastructure providing drinking water.

Effective Jan. 4., the maximum amount of lead allowed for use in pipes distributing drinking water will change from 8 percent to .25 percent – a new standard decided upon by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The new standard is a result of the Reduction of Lead in Drinking Water Act passed in Jan. 2011, aimed at reducing the amount of lead in drinking water pipes and other plumbing fixtures to protect public health.

Although the act was passed nearly three years ago, the EPA only recently indicated fire hydrants would have to meet the new standard – because they can be used to provide drinking water in emergency situations – according to a release from Sen. Charles Schumer’s office.

Any hydrant installed on or after Jan. 4. would need to meet the new EPA standard, according to the guidelines.

“As soon as [the law] was passed we changed our policy to immediately order fittings that didn’t contain lead so three years from then we’d be ready – nobody had any idea they were going to include fire hydrants,” said Suffolk County Water Authority commissioner James Gaughran. “Fire hydrants are used for fire safety purposes.”

He said had the agency known three years ago, they would have prepared to comply. They agency was notified Oct. 22., when a summary of the law’s guidelines was released by the EPA, he said.

The SCWA services about 1.2 million people annually through over 37,000 hydrants, and services most of Southold Town.

The agency’s existing stock of hydrants yet to be used numbers about 400 – valued at about $1,000 apiece  – that, combined with associated fittings, totals about $450,000 of what could be unusable equipment, Mr. Gaughran said. If no exemptions are made, or delay is granted by the EPA, the existing stockpile would be sold at scrap value, he said.

“We’re certainly concerned about lead contamination getting to the drinking water, but it takes a long time,” Mr. Gaughran said. “Give the industry time to develop and manufacture the new hydrants, so that there is competition – so we don’t get rate shocked,” he said. “Who knows, they could double or triple in price.”

At a press conference Monday, Mr. Schumer called on the EPA to exempt existing stocks of fire hydrants purchased before the EPA released the guidelines in October, which he says will save water districts thousands of dollars.

On Dec. 2, the House of Representatives unanimously passed legislation that would add fire hydrants to the list of devices exempt from the new lead standards – which includes toilets and shower parts.  Action from the Senate and Presidential approval would still be needed to fix the problem for local water districts.

Mr. Gaughran, who called the problem “just another example of government bureaucracy out of control,” said the agency replaces about 200 of its about 3,700 hydrants each year – many of which become damaged in winter storms and car accidents, he said.

While lead is rarely found in source water, it can enter tap water through the corrosion of plumbing materials, according to the EPA.

Exposure to lead can affect nearly every system in the body, and exposure above levels of 15 parts per billion can cause in delays in physical and mental development in babies and children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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04/11/13 8:00am
04/11/2013 8:00 AM

CARRIE MILLER PHOTO | Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, called for the banning of certain pesticides at the DEC’s Draft Long Island Pesticide Pollution Prevention Strategy hearing at Suffolk County Community College in Northampton last Wednesday night.

Environmental advocates, farmers, and elected officials stepped up to the microphone one by one last week, voicing support for or concern about the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s draft strategy to prevent future pesticide contamination of Long Island’s drinking water supplies.

Close to 100 people attended the hearing at Suffolk County Community College’s Eastern Campus in Riverhead last Wednesday night, April 3.

The new, 122-page proposed strategy calls for a technical review and advisory committee to review water quality data, so it can weigh factors such as human health risks and the availability of effective pesticide alternatives. The committee would provide the DEC with background information needed to support future regulatory action.

[Editorial: Is it time to rethink entire approach on pesticides?]

The draft strategy also calls for a working group of stakeholders to make sure those directly involved in pest management, pesticide use and water quality on Long Island are broadly represented.

Since 1996, 117 different pesticide-related chemicals have been detected in Long Island’s groundwater, according to the DEC.

By 1998 the agency began developing a plan to prevent further degradation of below-ground water supplies, culminating with the release of a draft plan in 2011 that included the possibility of a zero tolerance policy on certain pesticide uses. But the 2011 draft drew great concern from farmers, who said they would not be able to farm successfully under such harsh restrictions.

“The zero tolerance provision upset us greatly,” Joe Gergela, executive director of the Long Island Farm Bureau, said in an interview about the 2011 proposed plan, which got scrapped. “We objected to it because in the draft document was the notion of zero tolerance. We had to interpret what zero meant. To me, zero means if they found something, it’s banned.”

Taking note of those concerns, in January, the DEC released its newest proposal to prevent future pesticide contamination, calling the new draft a “strategy.”

Environmental advocates at the hearing last week said the proposed strategy is a step back from the original plan proposed in 2011.

Bob DeLuca, president of Group for the East End, said the strategy lacked specific goals for improving water quality over time.

Mr. DeLuca also asked for specific triggers, such as a certain number or level of pesticide detections, that would require the DEC to take regulatory action. He said the strategy also lacks a way to gauge how well it is working.

The new draft strategy “simply calls for more meetings and more planning” with too many “vagaries going forward,” he said.

Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, asked for a ban on three common pesticides — atrazine, metalaxyl, and imidacloprid — compounds she said are the most commonly found in Long Island’s groundwater.

Ms. Esposito asked the DEC to take responsibility for finding safer alternatives to common pesticides entering groundwater

But representatives of the East End’s agricultural community cautioned against implementing overly restrictive pesticide regulations, saying farmers need pesticides to remain economically viable.

Deborah Schmitt of Schmitt Family Farms in Riverhead voiced concern about a pesticides ban saying, “The last measure we use is pesticides.”

She said that before any pesticide is taken off the market alternatives must be identified, adding that the past few years have already been a struggle for Long Island’s farmers.

Ms. Schmitt also said a zero-tolerance policy for pesticides in groundwater “will put us out of business.” Long Island Farm Bureau executive director Joe Gergela agrees.

“Don’t start talking about banning things until the homework is done,” he said.

On the proposed banning of imidacloprid, for example, Mr. Gergela later said in an interview, “You have to be careful what you ask for.

“The alternative is far more toxic,” he said. “It’s product called dylox, and it is not as effective.”

Mr. Gergela also asked the DEC to assess risks presented by pesticides versus their benefit to society, adding that farming on Long Island is a $300 million industry.

“We need to work together,” he said. “We have to balance the issue.”

After the meeting, DEC deputy commissioner Eugene Leff said the agency would “seriously consider” creating water quality goals to ensure water quality changes are addressed over time.

Developing automatic triggers for regulatory action would be more difficult, he added. He believes a one-fits-all standard is not possible since different pesticides are harmful at different levels. The DEC is accepting public comments regarding the draft strategy until April 30. Comments can be submitted through email to: [email protected] or by fax to 518-402-9024, or mailed to:

Scott Menrath, NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, Division of Materials Management, 625 Broadway, Albany, NY 12233.

[email protected]