A Drain in More Ways Than One

Accabonac culvert cost $888,000 to build and thousands more to maintain, but never quite worked
A culvert on Gerard Drive in Springs, built to increase tidal flushing of the north end of Accabonac Harbor, was not opened this year for the first time since its completion in 2006. Durell Godfrey

    The culvert on Gerard Drive in Springs, completed in 2006 to increase tidal flushing of the north end of Accabonac Harbor in order to minimize the threat of coliform bacteria and other pathogens, remains sanded up and closed. The culvert was authorized for construction about 10 years ago, and its cost, including engineering, has run to $888,266, according to Len Bernard, the East Hampton Town budget officer.

    This year, for the first time, the culvert was not opened in early spring; consequently, it is not accomplishing its purpose, and the State Department of Environmental Conservation has closed some waterways in the area, including the north end of Accabonac Harbor and East Harbor, at its southern end, to the taking of shellfish.

    “We have been trying for the past couple months to get a team together to do water-quality sampling,” Kim Shaw, the town’s natural resources director, told The Star. “The D.E.C. will not let me use volunteers — that’s the way I was attacking it. The D.E.C. will not allow anybody that is not a paid town employee. We have to do some water-quality monitoring to see if the water has improved.” Ms. Shaw said that she hopes samples will be taken in the fall.

    While the town’s Natural Resources Department holds the permit for opening the culvert, the town trustees pay for its implementation. As Ms. Shaw is relatively new in her post, having succeeded Larry Penny last year, “she didn’t want to open it so she could get her own data on water when it is not open,” said Diane McNally, the clerk of the trustees. “Once you do that, more people look at it and say it was a failure. It wasn’t.”

    In the trustees’ estimation, Ms. McNally said, the culvert works as intended, when it is open. “It had support from the community,” she said, but “you have to reopen it. Some people didn’t anticipate that it would clog up based on tides, weather patterns. For those that didn’t know that and didn’t anticipate an annual opening, they look at it as an error. We were told that once the culvert went in, the water quality at that end of the harbor got better.”

    Until this year, the culvert was opened annually at a cost of approximately $15,000, said Mr. Penny. “It did clean up the north end quite nicely,” he said. “Normally, that cost was picked up by the state FEMA office, because four or five of those cloggings were caused by storms. I would get the permit from the D.E.C. and Army Corps to clean it out. We cleaned it out several times.”

    But not this year. “We would advocate strongly that they maintain and dredge open the culvert so it does what it was intended to do and facilitate better tidal flushing of the north end,” said Arnold Leo, secretary of the Town Baymen’s Association.

    The D.E.C., said Ms. Shaw, “is so shorthanded they can’t get out there to test on a regular basis.” Many of the closures to the harvesting of shellfish, she said, are precautionary.

    “To me, that’s reprehensible,” Mr. Leo said, “that they will keep a body of water closed to shellfishing because they don’t have the budget to send people to do the testing. That’s making everybody else pay for their budgetary problems.”

    Closed or not, the current state of the waterway presents a potential health hazard, said Michael Hastalis, who has lived on Gerard Drive for 35 years. “The town should hire their own testing,” he said, “because people are clamming right near it, and fishing every night. It’s a very dangerous situation over here because people are fishing off the culvert, the rocks. I certainly would be questioning the clams coming out of Accabonac — although nobody’s died yet.”

    Mr. Hastalis also cited the culvert as a possible culprit in the loss of nearby property owners’ beachfront. “The two or three houses directly south of it are losing a lot of beach,” he said.

    The State Department of Environmental Conservation responded to multiple queries regarding the water quality in Accabonac Harbor by sending links to its Web site via e-mail, but did not specifically address questions as to future water-quality testing in Accabonac Harbor.