Pit Water

Written By: Nanci  LaGarenne

I had water on my mind. When you mine sand for fifty years, you’re bound to hit water. That’s not good for the environment or the townspeople who rely on clean groundwater and drinking water. The aquifer that runs beneath must not become contaminated. Then the Soak Hides dreen becomes contaminated which runs into Three Mile Harbor, then Gardiner’s Bay and finally the Atlantic Ocean. Pristine water is what we want on our fragile Island here, not dirty pit water.

It’s a no brainer, we thought, our neighborhood group, of two hundred and fifty plus members, here in the woods, aka the “hood” of Freetown, on the East Hampton Village fringe. We named our group Freetown Neighbors, in honor of this historic land once inhabited by freed slaves from Gardiner’s Island and displaced Montaukett Indians. “Don’t talk about the water,” I was warned by the one of the Town Board members. “Talk about the sandpit.”

It all started when a sandpit owner supposedly sold his sand mining pit to another bigger sand mining and excavating company. We, who live in this residential only working class neighborhood, were shocked to see giant tractor-trailers blocking on our small road, unloading giant excavating machines and something called a skid steer. It looked like Star Wars now, back in the old “Pit,” as everyone has referred to it all these years, because it was in fact, a huge crater in the earth, barely used anymore. Kids rode dirt bikes inside it for years. There are trials around it and secret shortcuts to other roads. Once upon a time, it was mined and mined for sand, until it hit water. Sorry! I am not supposed to talk about the water.

Well the machines started roaring and blowing dust and digging day after day. Bamboo roots were dumped. That’s bad, bamboo is highly invasive and no one plants it on Long Island anymore. It might even be illegal to do so. Old tires were dumped too and metal doorframes and rug remnants. Not “clean topsoil,” as was said, which is okay. “He can only mine sand,” cried the Town Board. But we told them he was not. He was illegally dumping stuff. Not good stuff. Not sand. “Call the DEC,” said the Town, “They handle this sand mining pit’s permit..” Say that ten times fast. Anyway, I did. And that’s when it got a little crazy.

“DEC,” said the person who answered the phone. Her name was the name of a Greek goddess. I figured that was a good thing. It wasn’t. I explained the neighborhood’s concern about the sand mining pit being next to people’s houses and children and old people and the danger of the trucks on the small road and the noise and the dust. And then I did it, I mentioned the water. “Can you test the groundwater in the pit?” I asked. She said it wasn’t her department. She gave me another number to call.

I proceeded to ask the new person if he was in charge of groundwater. Then I played dumb and raised my voice an octave. “Um, doesn’t the DEC take care of all environmental things, like the wa….”? I never got to finish saying the forbidden water word.

“Oh, yes! We are the Department of Environmental Conservation. We take care of protecting the groundwater,” he said proudly.

“Great!” I think I squealed. I am not a squealer by nature. “Would you test the groundwater in a sandpit?”

“Of course,” he replied. “Not me personally. It’s not my department. But I will pass this on. We can test the soil too. Make sure it’s clean.”

“Wow,” I said, “That’s super.” I never say “super.” But he was being so kind and helpful it just came out of my mouth. We clicked off after wishing one another a grand Fourth of July weekend. After the weekend, I got the classic run around and something resembling the Abbot and Costello routine, “Who’s on First?”

I called back the DEC and asked for the groundwater person. They said I had to call the Suffolk County Department of Health Services or SCDHS. Don’t you love acronyms? I got a number from the Greek goddess woman at DEC and called the groundwater people at SCDHS. The person there said he was not in charge of the groundwater. “Call this number,” he said.

I punched in the new number. “Is this Groundwater testing?”

“No,” she said,” You want Ralph.” I waited while she connected me and the phone rang in my ear. I got Ralph’s voicemail. “You’ve reached Ralph at SCDHS, Groundwater division. Please leave a message.” I sighed, and left a short message and was hopeful. At least it was the right department. In the meantime, I collected signatures for a neighborhood petition that asked the Town and DEC to save our groundwater and stop this new sandpit expansion and illegal dumping. People signed right away. They love our clean drinking water and want it to stay that way. No one wants to drink pit water, a cocktail of chemicals and mysterious compounds. It wouldn’t be pretty like the Fiji water bottles. Even if we served it in a glass with an umbrella or attached a miniature sand mining machine, like a toy prize.

I got Ralph, the groundwater guy. He was very nice. “I’d love to test the water, but I cannot go into that sandpit, without permission. Did you call the DEC?”

“Yes, I did. But perhaps I need to again. Thank you, Ralph.” I called the DEC guy back and got the guy who was in charge of DEC sandpit permits.

I explained how we were concerned about the new sand mining and all that entailed as a huge operation, and then I mentioned it had hit water. “No, it didn’t,” he said.

“Yes it did,” I said, “We have pictures.”

He laughed at me. I thought that was rude but I continued. “We want the water tested.” He just breathed and said nothing. He seemed to have had enough of me. What was it about talking about the water that irked certain people?

I did some sleuthing on my own on sites that cared about groundwater on Eastern Long Island, where we have this sole source aquifer that needs protection. I attended yet another Town board meeting and even went on a local television show and talked about the water. I mentioned that the sandpit is located in a Special Groundwater Protection Area. The Town planners specifically designated it as such, to protect the aquifer below and drinking water wells for the whole Town, which are right down the road. People agree this is important.

And yet when I started talking about the water, at an informal Town meeting, I could see some eyes roll. “Here she goes…” they seem to say, without saying a word. I brought the water pictures. Some couldn’t see the water that was visible in the blown up photo. “Is that water?” they asked. I did not roll my eyes. I took a breath instead. “Yes, that pool or large puddle is water. In the sandpit. Today.” They turned the photo upside down. I was losing patience but remained calm. “Oh,” they said, “I see it.” It. Not “the water.” I guess if you say water, then you have to do something about it.

The next day I called the DEC again. “I have photos of the water in the sandpit, “ I said to the person who did not want to hear about the water. “There is no water,” he said. I sighed. “I saw it. We took pictures.”

“Gone,” he said. I was not in the mood to argue so I said, “Thank you for your time.” I walked to the sandpit. The water was gone. They filled it in with dirt. They buried the illegally dumped materials too. Okay, I said to myself, it is going to play like this, is it? We say yes; they say no. Back and forth like a ping-pong game. I would find someone to listen to us who would let us talk about the water. Come hell or high…um….water. Her platform for her campaign as a County Legislator, was, guess what? The water. Hallelujah! She would help us test the groundwater. We would make sure our drinking water stayed clean and clear. No pit water for us. Stay tuned.