An Indy investigation
Anyone who has ever trekked to the back parking lot of the Bridge golf club in Bridgehampton, past the glassy and futuristic clubhouse on the hill, has heard the ruckus. While the nearby fairways provide Instagrammable views of Noyac Bay, with only a sea breeze soundtrack, back here the grinding of gears and composting machinery breaks that spell. If you’re curious enough to plunge your rented golf cart through the second-growth pitch pine and mountain laurel, as Sam Christiansen did on a recent spring Tuesday, you’ll come to a rusted lawn chair that serves as a lookout over a Dantesque hellscape.
“Most people don’t even know this is back here,” says Christiansen, a 28-year-old private investigator in a teal muscle polo shirt, flared designer jeans, and distressed cowboy boots. “It’s so ugly and out-of-place inside these forests.”
Greed, inertia, and influence peddling could leave tens of thousands without clean water, devastate our ponds and bays, and destroy wildlife throughout the region.
Reflected in his blackout Oakleys was a 31.5-acre industrial crater known as Sand Land. The decades-old pit is home to a multi-million dollar sand mining and mulch-composting business that activists say has not only been churning out dust, noise, and various stenches for years, but has actually polluted the groundwater beneath the site. Multi-million dollar estates with swimming pools and tennis courts dot the woodlands radiating out from this noxious but extremely valuable hole in the ground.
Christiansen, who was hired to monitor the site using tree- and scaffold-mounted cameras strategically placed on the periphery, stood on a ridge separating the pit from the southern edge of the golf club’ s property, as landscaping trucks regularly lurched into view, stopping at the base of a black mulch mountain. Next to an industrial trommel screen or “blender” that refines the compost, a front loader piled the trucks high with mulch destined for local lawns and gardens.
“That stuff is black poison,” says Christiansen. “No one even asks or cares what’s in it.”
Hiring a private eye to surveil a sand pit may sound extreme, but this is what it’s come to out on the East End. Recent research has shown that commercial composting operations like this can dangerously affect their surroundings. While seemingly part of a virtuous ecological circle of repurposing grass, leaves, and trees into soil-nourishing mulch, they actually release harmful levels of metals and radiological elements into the groundwater. And Sand Land is one of the most egregious: It sits directly over the East End’s only aquifer in an area designated by New York State as a Special Groundwater Protection Area.
But Sand Land is merely one expression of a regional disaster in the making. In 2015, the Suffolk County Department of Health Services warned that water quality here — spanning everything from our ponds, estuaries, and bays to our drinking water — is at an alarming “tipping point,” suffering from manifold afflictions. Backyard septic systems and farm fertilizers ooze nitrogen and trigger pond and bay algae blooms that kill off sea and shellfisheries, while shriveling wetlands and making us vulnerable to storm surges. Old industrial sites and emerging contaminants in household products are spreading cancer-causing pollutants into drinking water. And hillsides full of organic junk are generating harmful amounts of metals and other toxins.
“No matter how you slice it, we are living in the midst of a number of disconcerting trends that are putting our waters under assault,” says Dr. Christopher Gobler, a coastal marine scientist and the director of Stony Brook University’s Center for Clean Water Technology. “And if these trends continue, then it’s only going to get worse.”
As the mid-morning lunch break ended at Sand Land, more and more landscaping trucks began to arrive to reload. Christiansen hopped into his golf cart and lurched through the heavy underbrush to the east side of the rectangular hole to get a better view.
He pulled up near some weathered scaffolding that looked like an open-air hunting blind. “That’s for prospective land buyers,” Christiansen says, “to get a look at the property.” On the far side of the scaffolding, deep in the woods, carpenters were banging out the frame of a minor mega mansion. “No one is going to buy on this side of the ridge,” he adds.
Christiansen climbed from the cart and walked over to some fallen hurricane fencing meant to mark the boundary of Sand Land’s 50-acre parcel. From here, he could see directly across to an unmined 3.1-acre hill known as the stump dump, which was for decades the core of the composting and mulching activities at the site. A 40-foot face of sand — a gold mine in itself — wore a blackened toupee of organic waste that will eventually make its way into the blender, the contractors’ trucks, and the backyards of East Enders.
Joining Christiansen at the site was a Brooklyn filmmaker (together they would spend the next three days in a hotel room piecing together thousands of hours of surveillance video into a YouTube-ready documentary), and Washington, D.C., power lawyer Brian Sexton. Sexton was hired several years ago by Robert Rubin, owner of the Bridge and a former Wall Street commodities trader, who transformed the defunct Bridge Race Circuit into the golf club (membership fee: $950,000) and luxury residential subdivision. Rubin objected to the mine’s noise and nuisance as well as its pollution and had joined forces with local neighbors and activists.
Hiring Christiansen and his father, Keith, whose remote cameras record the pit 24 hours a day, with footage stored on a 100-terabyte hard drive, accessible by iPhone app, was one of their first big moves.
“What you’re looking at, besides the yard waste, is millions of pounds of sand with a street value of about $35 million,” says Sexton, clad in faded dad jeans, an oversized windbreaker, and a pair of fresh-from-the-box suede hiking boots. “Combine that with the fact that mulch here is probably a $50,000-a-week cash business, and you’ve got a highly profitable operation. That is why people are fighting so hard on the other side to save it.”
Places like Sand Land, out of sight and out of the way, became ready repositories for tons of rotting yard waste and dead Christmas trees when Long Island succeeded in shutting down its many toxic landfills in the 1980s. At the time, it seemed like a win-win.
The Nature Conservancy charted the adverse water events on Long Island for the summer of 2018. The results weren’t pretty.“When the landfills closed they never dealt with that portion of the waste stream,” says Bob DeLuca, a long-time critic of Sand Land and the president of the environmental organization Group for The East End. “So it had to go somewhere, first in a hole in the ground, and then it became a commodity.”
It wasn’t until 2000 that high concentrations of metals began turning up in private well water near these operations. That year, elevated levels of manganese were found in the well of a home on Horseblock Road in Yaphank.
Next door sat the 62-acre Great Gardens composting facility, which had begun processing up to 85,000 tons of yard and food waste the previous year. It took a decade to confirm, but in 2013, the State Department of Environmental Conservation published a landmark study that named Great Gardens as the source of local well water contamination by manganese, ammonia, thalium, and gross alpha/beta radioactivity that exceeded safe drinking standards.
The science explaining the contamination would come later, but it proved pretty straightforward: These metals and radionuclides occur naturally and at safe levels in our soil. It’s only when organic matter enters the soil that it changes groundwater chemistry; microbes break down wood during decomposition and consume oxygen as they do, reducing oxygen levels in the soil to almost zero. This anaerobic condition allows metals and other elements to leech en masse into the ground water.
Soon after the DEC report, the county health department began testing other mulching sites. By 2016, it had found similar contamination at 11 of 12 composting facilities it tested. Two years later, it added Sand Land to its list of offenders.
From the start, activists were particularly alarmed because Sand Land sits directly over the sole source aquifer here, in what’s known as a water recharge area — a “deep flow” hydrogeologic zone that provides the greatest quantity and volume of fresh water recharge to the subsurface aquifer. For a decade, activists, politicians, and the Town of Southampton itself have been urging the DEC to shut down Sand Land and force its owner, John Tintle, to clean the site and turn it over for reclamation. Instead, Tintle, who owns another sand mine in East Quogue and a defunct one in Wainscott, has fought not only to keep the mine active but to expand his operations, including into the 3.1-acre stump dump.
The biggest challenge is that people just don’t understand where the pollution is coming from.
Last September, after years of battles in court and before regulators, Sand Land’s critics seemed poised for victory. That month, the DEC told Tintle he had pretty much run out of sand to mine at the site, and that what was left was problematic. Mining the stump dump, it said, could release still more contaminants, further threatening the groundwater supply. It demanded Tintle cease mining operations and quickly begin the reclamation process.
But then, six months later, something odd happened. On March 15, the DEC reversed itself. It announced “a settlement agreement” with Tintle. Without public participation, the state had struck a deal that allowed Tintle to mine the former stump dump and dig 40 feet deeper, bringing the mine closer to the aquifer. It also gave him an additional eight years before he’d be required to close up shop. The agreement, while banning Tintle from accepting any new vegetative waste and mandating onsite groundwater monitoring, made zero mention of penalties for confirmed contamination on the site, nor did it propose cleaning up the mess that was already there. Critics were blindsided. And outraged.
DeLuca called the agreement “bizarre,” and suggested it needed to be investigated: “We have no idea why or how this bad decision was reached.”
On April 17, DeLuca’s group and other activists, along with Sand Land’s neighbors, the Town of Southampton, and State Assemblyman Fred Thiele, sued the DEC and Sand Land, in state Supreme Court, seeking to void the settlement agreement. A few weeks later, Suffolk County filed papers to join the suit.
Neither Tintle nor his lawyer would comment for this story. The DEC wouldn’t comment on the pending lawsuit, but issued a statement to The Independent saying its settlement “has put the facility on the path to closure.”
In fact, the Sand Land flip-flop is just the latest example of how our watchdogs are failing to protect our most precious resource. Through a combination of greed, inertia, and influence peddling, the East End is staring down a crisis that could leave tens of thousands without clean water, devastate our ponds and bays, and destroy wildlife throughout the region.
It’s a slow, insidious kind of crisis. Outgunned by business interests and the political muscle of developers, lay people on local zoning boards are allowing what DeLuca calls “death by a thousand cuts.”
“People think of pollution as this green gunk spewing from a single pipe with some corporate bad guy at the other end,” he says. “But it’s a thousand tiny accommodations made daily. We’ve met the enemy and it is us.”
DeLuca has spent his career fighting accommodations. He regularly appears at zoning board meetings in a tweed jacket, rimless glasses, and a professorial goatee. He is a biologist with degrees
in environmental science, an educator, and, since the 1980s, a ringleader for his group. He is plainspoken and talks as knowledgably about the glacial geology of Long Island as he does about the impact of duck farm waste on water quality here in the 1940s and 1950s.
The biggest challenge to stopping the further erosion to our drinking water, ponds, and bays, says DeLuca, is that people just don’t understand where the pollution is coming from. It’s the stuff we use on our bodies. It’s the stuff that’s flowing from old industrial sites. And most of all, it’s the stuff that’s flowing out of our bodies. “Unless you’re a geologist who cares about these things,” he says, “you never see what’s seeping through the groundwater under our yards and manhole covers.”
Indeed, the list of threats and their impacts can seem endless. Last May, the Town of East Hampton had to declare a state of emergency after it found high levels of the chemicals PFOS and PFOA in private wells near the East Hampton Airport. For years, firefighters staging mass casualty drills there would torch a school bus and then spray it down with hundreds of gallons of firefighting foam. The chemicals were also used at the airport itself and by neighboring businesses. Eventually, they leeched into the groundwater and contaminated at least 100 wells. The town had to commit $24 million to extend water mains to those homes.
In early March, the Bethpage Water District sued Northrup Grumman, which for decades operated a weapons facility in the town, after it found a chemical called 1, 4 dioxane, which the EPA recently classified as “likely to be carcinogenic,” in its drinking water. And that contamination is separate from a 6-square-mile toxic plume that has been seeping into the town’s water supply and is blamed on the company’s hazardous waste dumping.
Adrienne Esposito heads up the Citizens Campaign for the Environment, which has been sounding alarms over dioxane and other emerging contaminants for years (“emerging” because we’ve only recently begun to understand their impacts on human health). It’s not just heavy industry that is to blame, says Esposito. She calls dioxane, for example, “a major concern to drinking water quality.” The chemical is used in hundreds of personal care products including shampoo, soap, body wash, and laundry detergent. (It is an unwanted bi-product of ethoxylation, the process manufacturers use to reduce skin-irritation that petroleum-based ingredients cause.)
“Every time we use these things, they go down the drain and enter our wastewater stream,” says Esposito. From there, they seep into wells or become part of the municipal water system. Water treatment plants, and consumer filters, currently have no way of scrubbing them out.
But these little-known contaminants aren’t the only things we flush that can harm us. Because our bodies only metabolize a fraction of most prescription drugs we swallow, birth control, antidepressants, blood pressure regulators, and anti-anxiety medications all end up in the water we drink.
That’s alarming in itself. But unfortunately it’s a drop in the bucket. The biggest threat to our health and to our aquatic environment — by far — is something far more natural.
On a cloudless spring Saturday, a dozen people crammed into the tiny screened-in porch on the back of Rick Marsh’s cottage overlooking Little Fresh Pond, in the hamlet of North Sea. Marsh and his wife, Barbara, have owned this summer place on the 19-acre pond for 65 years. Thanks to their 40-year-old neighborhood association, which prohibits swimming pools and lawn pesticides, the pond is one of the cleanest in the area.
That, they say, may soon change. In 2010, a local developer and children’s day camp operator named Jay S. Jacobs bought a 17-acre site on the pond: 12 summer cottages and 10 neighborhood tennis courts that operated as a tennis club for visitors as well as a few locals and their kids. Jacobs saw untapped commercial upside. In 2012, he applied to the Southampton Zoning Board of Appeals to turn the place into a tennis day camp for 420 kids; it would be staffed by 90 adult counselors, 65 of them living on site during the summer.
Marsh and other members of the Little Fresh Pond Association have spent years trying to stop Jacobs. They argue that increased sewage from the camp will eventually infiltrate dangerous levels of nitrogen into the groundwater and then the pond.
“You’re going to have hundreds of people, each one of them flushing toilets three or four times a day, which is just going to kill this little pond,” says Marsh, as the other members, sunk in well worn wicker chairs and couches, surrounded by styrofoam plates of fruit and cups of home-brewed coffee, murmured that’s rights all around him.
In fact, our toilets are the principal sources of the biggest water quality issue facing the East End and the county. Of Suffolk County’s 1.5 million residents, 74 percent or roughly 1 million people, have no access to municipal sewer systems. Their waste goes into cesspools and septic tanks (some 360,000 throughout the county). Nitrogen in that waste finds its way into the groundwater and up to the surface. During storms, rain carries that nitrogen, with pesticides and other pollutants, into ponds, estuaries, and bays.
Once there, nitrogen causes a devastating cascade of environmental disasters. It triggers hypoxia and harmful algae blooms, which kill off sea and shellfisheriers, and turns our ponds and our bays brown with microorganism death. It destroys eel grass beds and wetlands, protective natural buffers against wave and storm surges. As a result, salt water is allowed to travel further inland, and in turns invades fresh water supplies. This in turn raises the ground water levels, further compromising residential cesspools and septic systems, creating a harmful and un-ending cycle.
Nitrogen is also a threat to the water we drink. Unlike New York City, Long Island doesn’t pump its water from upstate reservoirs. Every drop from our faucets comes from below our feet, from that single-source aquifer, which sits as close as 120 feet below sea level in some areas. Two decades ago, that wasn’t a problem. Back then, there were fewer people living and vacationing here, and fewer septic systems to accept their waste, so groundwater was able to gradually absorb and disperse the nitrogen. Today, “we basically have an urban population living on a rural infrastructure,” says DeLuca.
According to Frank Russo, a civil engineer and the associate director of wastewater initiatives at Stony Brook University’s Center for Clean Water Technologies, the levels of nitrogen and ammonia in crude wastewater has become “a major health concern to both potable water and surface water.” Nowhere is that more evident, he says, than in the Great South Bay, which once produced more than half the clams eaten in the U.S. Over the past 25 years, the clam harvest there has cratered by 93 percent, killed off by recurrent brown tides and destroying an industry that once accounted for 6,000 jobs.
Of course, in rural areas like around Little Fresh Pond, residents fear that a business-as-usual approach to wastewater will condemn a valuable resource to becoming a similar sort of dead zone.
On March 7, in an eerie bureaucratic echo of the Sand Land story, and after an eight-year legal fight, the Southampton ZBA approved Jacobs’ application to designate his property as a day camp. Though the neighborhood association’s own expert hydrologist had found that wastewater from the camp would likely flow into the pond, that same expert, when hired by Jacobs for his environmental impact statement, said it would flow around the pond.
Association members say such competing claims need to be resolved independently. They worry that Jacobs was given preferential treatment. Not only because he is a powerful businessman who owns seven other children’s day camps, but because he is also the chairman of the Democratic Party in Nassau County, and the party’s former state chairman.
No one has accused Jacobs or the ZBA of doing anything improper. But critics say the boards themselves are often under immense pressure from wealthy homeowners and developers to make favorable rulings. “The ZBA has a litany of things that are not allowed and they have to say no a lot, whether it’s a mega mansion expansion near wetlands or a well-funded and connected developer,” says DeLuca. “It’s a hard job and the politically appointed boards are not always up for it.”
It’s also hard for community groups to fight deep-pocketed developers. Early in the Little Fresh Pond battle, Jacobs sued the heads of the association for $45 million, charging defamation for their characterization of his conduct as “fraudulent.” A judge tossed the suit as “frivolous,” calling it an example of a SLAPP suit, a strategic lawsuit against public participation to chill free speech, and ordered Jacobs to pay their legal fees.
For his part, Jacobs not only defends his right to develop the land, and defends the integrity of his own experts and the ZBA’s decision, but accuses the association of creating “a phony issue.”
“What you have is handful of people who enjoyed living next to a failing day camp and a small club and don’t want to see the activity go up so they used the pollution issue to stir people up,” he says. “I think they took advantage of everyone.”
“The DEC slammed shut the doors of victory we had opened,” says one activist. “We’re now fighting to find out why they did it.”
Noting that Little Fresh Pond is already in a state of decline (in 2012, it was found to be “eutrophic,” meaning that algae was highly productive and could impair the water), Jacobs laid the blame on the very homeowners trying to keep him out. “Some of these neighbors, whose houses are within dozens of feet of the pond, have antiquated septic systems and [are] certainly more responsible for the pond’s decline than anything else is,” he says. He added that he cares about the environment and the pond’s health, but thinks his critics are hypocrites. “When you twist science to advance your own personal self interest,” he says, “I think it’s despicable.”
Maybe Jacobs is right that current residents are contributing to a deterioration of the pond. But adding hundreds more people to the equation seems highly unlikely to improve its condition.
Among the topics at Rick Marsh’s cottage that spring Saturday was how to raise money to carry on the fight against Jacobs. The group wants to appeal the ZBA decision. And there’s also the matter of the beach. Jacob’s property includes a beach that could be used to let campers swim and kayak on the pond. That means, in the minds of the association members, lots of kids with environmentally harmful sunblock and insecticides, recreating, and probably peeing, in their pond. Jacobs tells the Independent he has no plans for such a use at the camp, but he wants to retain the right to use the beach. The Zoning Board must grant site approval for that use, which the association plans to fight.
But they’re not sure how to pay for it. “We’ve funded all of this out of our own pockets for eight years,” says Jim Silber, co-president of the association. “Who else can help us?”
There are a few rays of hope in this tale. People like Stony Brook’s Russo are creating new technologies that could help. His team has devised a filtering system that can clean nitrogen in on-site septic systems. But it costs a lot — $35,000 to tear out an old residential system and install a new one. And though he hopes to see the price drop to $10,000, it will remain an inconvenience and a high cost for many but the wealthiest homeowners, even with local grants.
To get rid of 1, 4 dioxane in our waters is even harder. There’s only nascent research into filtering it. And even if consumers wanted to avoid it entirely, that’s nearly impossible because manufacturers are not required to list it as an ingredient on products. Esposito’s group is lobbying the U.S. Senate to mandate that the FDA force companies to get rid of it. “They don’t need it, they don’t have to include it in products, and it should be banned,” she says.
Which is why, say opponents, it is so disturbing that the DEC not only reversed course in March when it announced its settlement with Tintle, but also set the stage for further contamination of the groundwater by allowing him to mine the stump dump.
“The DEC slammed shut the doors of victory we had opened,” says Esposito, whose group is one of many now suing Tintle and the regulatory agency. “It was ridiculous and absurd and we’re now fighting to find out why they did it. Only they can answer that.”
Kevin Gray’s writing has appeared in Wired UK, The Wall Street Journal, New York, The New York Times Magazine, and numerous other publications. His last feature for The Independent was “A Mighty Wind,” about the Deepwater Wind controversy.