Whale removal: $7,500. It’s an unusual ledger entry in any town. But even in East Hampton, which has had its share of whale misadventures recently, it was a bill that surprised the town trustees, simply because they said they never authorized it and were never consulted about it.
Speaking at a meeting on Tuesday night, Diane McNally, the clerk of the trustees, said charging the trustees for the removal of a finback whale that washed up on Napeague on Jan. 13 was the determination of the town’s budget officer, Len Bernard, and Supervisor Bill Wilkinson, since it happened on a trustee beach.
“While I do appreciate their acknowledging that it was a trustee beach, no one asked us about cost or anything about removing the whale or how to go about it,” Ms. McNally said.
Stephanie Forsberg, a trustee, said the town officers should be reminded that the trustees only expend money when a majority of them vote to do so. “We did not discuss it nor did we make a vote to spend the public’s money for that.”
Billy Mack of First Coastal in Westhampton Beach offered to remove the whale for nothing. “I had a machine not that far away,” he said at the meeting. “I said I’d be happy to do it. . . . They said they had already made other arrangements.”
Instead, the arrangements were made with Bistrian Gravel Corporation through the East Hampton Town Highway Department and approved by the supervisor, Mr. Bernard said in a joint interview yesterday with Ed Michels, the town’s chief harbormaster.
“I was never asked when I was there,” Ms. Forsberg said, “and I was one of the first people on the beach.” She said she spoke with Mr. Wilkinson about the whale, but he never brought up the subject of its removal. She said that Mr. Michels, who was one of those in charge on the scene, was very helpful but asked only that the trustees permit them to close the beach to the public for safety reasons.
Mr. Michels said yesterday that the trustees had been notified immediately and that he had a long discussion with one of them, Deborah Klughers. “We discussed the alternative methods to remove the whale. She was concerned that it might be buried or towed out to sea.” The decision to cut up the remains and incinerate them was what she preferred, he said.
“There was no question about what the cost would be after it was done,” Mr. Michels said. On the contrary, he and Mr. Bernard said that it was not something that could be determined in advance of the job.
Ms. Klughers said at the meeting Tuesday that she had not been consulted about the removal.
Mr. Bernard said it was the supervisor’s determination that the bill should go to the trustees, as the whale was on their land. “Ed coordinated with the highway superintendent for removal, and he certainly wasn’t going to pay for it out of his budget.” When it comes to issues involving the beach, Mr. Bernard said the trustees seem to assume that someone else is “going to foot the bill on what they claim vehemently to be their area.”
He said a similar situation had occurred when sea turtles washed up on bay beaches and had to be removed by a payloader. He said the Clearwater Beach Association, as the property owners, were charged for the removal.
Mr. Michels said the reason that such a chargeback to the trustees had not come up before was because the whales that washed up here in recent memory had not been on trustee beaches. The last whale to wash up on Napeague was about 25 years ago, he said, and it was buried. More recent incidents were in Montauk and East Hampton Village, and the town and the village, respectively, took responsibility.
According to Mr. Michels, Mr. Mack did approach him about offering his equipment on the beach, and he referred him to Steve Lynch, the highway superintendent. “He never offered it for free,” Mr. Michels said.
He added that the size of the job and the amount of time they had to do it required special equipment, an earth-moving dump truck, to minimize the trips to the town dump with the 2,200 tons of whale remains that were already creating a health hazard.
Mr. Bernard said he had never smelled anything like it, and that Mr. Lynch, who was on site the entire time, “had to throw away his pants” because the smell would not come out after several washings.
The high tide did not recede until the afternoon, and the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation did not finish the necropsy until 2 or 3 p.m. That left the town with only a few hours to remove the cut-up remains before the sun went down, which would bring on the added expense of a light source, Mr. Michels said.
“It only took three or four loads. With a payloader it would have taken multiple days,” Mr. Michels said.
The remains were left on the tipping room floor of the dump and then put on roll-off containers headed to the incinerator, where they were burned.
Questions and disagreements about bills and reimbursements have been an issue between town administrators and the trustees for some time. Although many trustees were willing to pay the bill, they indicated that they would go to a town board meeting and discuss the whale removal along with a number of other outstanding financial matters.
Ms. McNally said it was important that the trustees be more involved and understand the procedures in these situations if the group is going to be financially responsible for them. “The trustees have a minimal town budget,” she said, and much of the income from their property, such as beach permits and other permits and fees, goes back to the town. Although she said she did not have a problem paying the bill, “we asked how it would be done and were never told.”
There was never a discussion with the supervisor, she said. “It was attached in an e-mail that said you’re responsible for this. It was not handled professionally.”