Water: Our Common Ground by Elaine DiMasi

Like many of you, when I was growing up, all the outdoors was my playground. From the rocks left behind by long-ago glaciers to the mysterious seashells washed ashore on the beach, this dynamic environment of ours has always fascinated me. That fascination with nature turned into my pursuit of science. Physics led me to a world of problem solving; biology reaffirmed my reasons for trying harder to understand our world and to make it a better place. 

From 1996 until very recently when I applied to be a congressional candidate, I worked as a scientist at Brookhaven National Laboratory. Now, although ever a scientist at heart, I am running to represent the diverse community of the First Congressional District to protect our jobs, create new ones, and especially to protect our Long Island environment — home to the most stunning seascapes in the country as well as to more than 7.5 million of us who look forward to keeping our beaches beautiful and our water clean and safe to drink.

For Long Islanders, water is our common ground. Regardless of the size of our paychecks, our politics, our ethnicity, or our religion, all of us benefit from our beaches, which attract tourists from all over the world. Our economy, particularly on the East End, centers on tourism, and Long Island has long been a coveted vacation destination. As locals, we get to enjoy the sand, the surf, and historical towns year round. So when our beaches become polluted, when the safety of our drinking water is at risk, we all face the same health and economic threats. Therefore, we should all be a part of the solution.

There have long been questions about the safety of our water. With the high rate of breast cancer on Long Island and throughout the country, for years there was much speculation that toxins in our water could be the culprit. To date, no conclusive link has been established. However, there have been studies to suggest that contaminants have made their way into our drinking water through irresponsible waste disposal. In those bygone days of Long Island manufacturing, some big employers, it is believed, were responsible for a toxic plume, posing a risk to the water supplies of Bethpage, South Farmingdale, and Massapequa. 

Closer to home, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation has focused on East Hampton Airport as a possible inactive hazardous waste disposal site. And last month, the Suffolk County Water Authority sued 11 manufacturers for polluting our public water wells with harmful chemicals used in the production of firefighting foam, industrial greasers, detergents, and other household products.

Cleaning up these contaminants will cost many millions of dollars — something that could have been prevented. But if, as the plaintiffs have alleged, these companies out of either ignorance or arrogance allowed these chemicals to infiltrate our groundwater and present a threat to the health of Long Islanders, there perhaps need to be much clearer regulations and stiffer penalties for pollution. In law, ignorance is not a defense.

Fortunately, we live in New York, where Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has invested heavily in the preservation of our public water. In fact, he recently announced nearly $27 million in grants to support 13 essential Long Island drinking water and wastewater infrastructure projects. But this kind of environmental protection is crucial throughout our government. Municipalities, local governments, and state governments cannot be expected to shoulder alone the expense or the complex scientific research required to investigate and clean up contaminants. Water pollution, air pollution, and, of course, the devastating effects of climate change require a national effort — it is a matter of our civil rights. We have the right to live on Long Island and in this country without getting sick.

Unfortunately, today we are seeing a near decimation of the one agency in the federal government charged with protecting our whole environment — the Environmental Protection Agency. Instead of making deep cuts in this agency (established in 1970 by President Richard Nixon), we should be making further investments in it. A well-funded and properly functioning E.P.A. would be able to zoom out and broadly assess how clean water flows in all of our U.S. waterways, and also determine the trouble spots. Despite the political fervor of the last year, as congresswoman for the First District, I would lead the fight to restore and build upon the assets of the E.P.A.

What has too often happened in this district is a narrow focus on a few Long Island estuaries rather than a comprehensive assessment of all our waterways. After all, it is wholly inconsistent to vote for a bill to protect Long Island Sound and Peconic Bay in 2015, and then abandon environmental principles two years later to vote in sync with a new administration that seeks to gut the E.P.A. Protecting our environment is a lifetime commitment — it should be and used to be a bipartisan commitment — and that is the least of what we should expect from our elected officials.

What can you do? For starters, you can get involved in local environmental groups that address issues pertaining to Long Island bays, estuaries, and pine barrens, Plum Island, and First Nation lands. National organizations with Long Island chapters include the Nature Conservancy, the Sierra Club, and Citizens Climate Lobby. You also can write to pressure the current Congress and the Trump administration to increase their support of the E.P.A.

Elaine DiMasi, a Democrat who lives in Ronkonkoma, will take part in a forum for progressive candidates on Saturday from 2:30 to 4:30 p.m. at Stony Brook Southampton’s Chancellors Hall.