Officials Say Mine Should Be Closed

Health Department study shows manganese, thallium, and other contaminants

Sharon Bakes has two children who are 8 and 14 years old, and acknowledges she can’t definitively prove the well water at the Noyac house her children have lived in their entire lives contributed to their developmental problems. But she is concerned about what might be leeching into the soil and water there from the controversial Sand Land industrial mine, which has been operating on Middle Line Highway in Noyac since 1961. Janet Verneuille, a nearby Noyac homeowner, also worries about the water at her house.

Now, the frequently litigious, often contentious two-decade-old fight over the Sand Land operation could be nearing an end if some local residents, environmental groups, and elected officials have their way following a study by the Suffolk Department of Health Services released on June 29, which cited the presence of contaminants in groundwater beneath the site.

“Sand Land should be shut down,” State Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. said Monday, reiterating remarks he made at a July 13 press conference to discuss the Health Department’s findings, which was also attended by Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman and Suffolk County Legislator Bridget Fleming, along with representatives of the Citizens Campaign for the Environment, the Group for the East End, and the Noyac Civic Council.

Mr. Schneiderman stressed in a phone interview Monday that the issue is complex. “Sand mines aren’t inherently bad,” he said. But, based on the county’s study, he believes the Sand Land mine should not have its five-year permit renewed by the State Department of Environmental Conservation nor its application to mine a larger and deeper area of the 50-acre site approved. The permit is up for renewal in November. 

The Suffolk Health Department study found that Sand Land’s mining and other operations, such as processing vegetative waste, construction debris, compost, and mulch, has resulted in the release of iron, manganese, thallium, sodium, nitrate, ammonia, and radioactivity into the deep recharge area beneath the site and the aquifer. Iron was found in the deepest parts of the water table at concentrations over 200 times the drinking-water standard and manganese was found at concentrations at almost 100 times the drinking-water standard.

The entire South Fork’s long-term drinking water supply is dependent on the groundwater protection area where the mine is located.

“I recall when we first moved here 25 years ago, a friend of ours, a professor at the college, used to bottle his own water from our tap because he believed it was the cleanest, safest water to drink,” Ms. Verneuille said. “Our well draws water from the aquifer, so we are anxious about possible health impacts on our family and neighbors. It’s the talk of the community.”

Sand Land, which is owned and operated by John Tintle of Wainscott Sand and Gravel, is promising to keep fighting. It will contest the county’s findings, the company’s attorney, Brian Matthews of Matthews, Kirst & Cooley in East Hampton, said in a phone interview Monday. Sand Land also has no intention of rescinding its applications to remain in business or expand, Mr. Matthews said.

Mr. Matthews said his client disagrees with the health department’s interpretations of the data it collected, and that he has hired his own experts. “We think the conclusions are flawed,” Mr. Matthews said. He noted that Sand Land had not been cited for any violations by the D.E.C. He also released a statement on his client’s behalf that read, in part: “The review conducted to date reveals a number of internal inconsistencies and other critical findings that belie the county’s conclusion that the use of the site has adversely impacted the groundwater.”

One of the facts Sand Land has seized upon is that the 36 private wells in Noyac surrounding the mine that the county tested were all found to meet drinking-water standards. The county’s report goes on to note, however, that the residential wells are unlikely to be as deep as the 137 to 150-foot test wells the county drilled at the Sand Land site, which could explain the variations.

Ms. Bakes, Ms. Verneuille, and Elena Loreto, president of the Noyac Civic Council, said they recently paid for private tests of their wells and they also came up clean. But they worry that could change, Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, said.

Ms. Esposito, whose environmental group joined this fight seven years ago, said, “It is scientifically valid now — we know they’re polluting. We know this pollution is coming from the mulching and composting operations that they’re doing. This is so mind-blowing. Why would the state wait for someone’s private well water to be polluted when it’s now been proven this mine is a known polluter? Enough already.”

The chance that the county study could lead to another round of litigation in addition to the cases pending at the local and state level surprises no one involved. The county’s ability to even conduct its tests at the mine was a drawn-out process.

Sand Land officials initially agreed in 2015 to let the county’s on-site well drilling and water testing happen, then rescinded permission. County officials had to go to court to gain access. That finally happened in 2017, and the wells were drilled in October. The county’s lab completed testing of the samples in February 2018. In March, the county’s hydrogeologists completed quality control and validation processes and sent samples to the D.E.C. and New York State Department of Health. 

But even before the county released its final report on June 29, the Group for the East End, Citizens Campaign for the Environment, and Noyac Civic Council, which has over 500 members, successfully filed a Freedom of Information Act request for access to the raw data the county obtained. The groups hired their own expert and his report came to the same general conclusions as the county health department’s.

To residents long frustrated with the pace of this fight, consensus seemed like a eureka moment. The test results corroborated for the first time their long-held suspicion that the plant is a hazard.

Now some of those residents say they are even more upset that testing wasn’t done all along to make sure no damage was being done and the site was regulated.

“We’ve been warning the D.E.C. about this for more than 10 years, and they will harass fishermen and people that are growing oysters, but they don’t give a damn about this,” Ms. Loreto, who has owned a house in Noyac for 41 years, said. “I’ve written to the governor, I’ve written to the D.E.C., and nobody gets back to you.”

“Well, never mistake lethargy for strategy,” Bob DeLuca, president of the Group of Concerned Citizens, said. “Historically the state hasn’t seemed to know what to do, or have the volition to do anything. But somebody there has to look at this now and say, ‘Houston, we’ve got a problem.’ ”

Mr. Matthews, Sand Land’s attorney, said the company’s testing of its three wells at the mine show different results than the county reported.

But Mr. Thiele and Mr. Schneiderman said they stand by the Suffolk Health Department’s conclusions.

“People might reasonably disagree on policy decisions that should be taken now, but not the science,” Mr. Thiele said. “I don’t always agree with the Suffolk County Health Department on the policy side, but when it comes to their lab, their water quality testing, Suffolk County is basically state of the art. Never have they been wrong in their technical work on water testing, to my knowledge. They are the envy of the state.”

For Ms. Bakes, who has watched this play out as she raised her children, the county report has fanned hope that the end of the fight is near. But she’s wary. “I don’t feel like we’ve had enough accountability or regulation of the mine,” she said. “Some people here are getting bottled water or Poland Spring deliveries to their homes. That’s just for drinking. We have filters on our water, too. ­­­But I don’t know if it filters out carcinogens or the heavy metals they’re finding. This is a huge issue, and we still don’t have any answers.”