Editorial: The lesson Temik taught us

During the tumultuous 1960s one axiom of the day was, “Never trust anyone over 30.” But if you’re looking for insight or background on one of the greatest threats ever to the North Fork’s groundwater supplies — the pesticide Temik — better advice might be, never trust anyone under 30.

It’s been that long since that highly effective compound, much welcomed by potato growers after DDT was banned, was found to have contaminated groundwater supplies all across the East End. It was an environmental threat of a kind never seen before, or since.

That experience has taught us many things, including that Long Island’s sandy soils offer virtually no protection from whatever poisonous compounds find their way on, to or under the ground. Over the years we’ve also seen the truth behind the saying, “The solution to pollution is dilution.”

If anyone wasn’t aware before the Temik troubles, they soon learned that Long Island is essentially a large, sandy sponge. Rainfall eventually works its way downward into the sand below and then slowly seeps outward toward the sea. Along the north shore it flows oh-so-slowly into the Sound and on the south to the bays and ocean. Once a contaminant gets in there, it stays for years.

As we report this week, Temik’s by-products are still found in some local wells, but by and large it has, as predicted, been flushed out.

But when it was still present in high concentrations, homeowners with tainted wells had but two choices: Either install a sophisticated filter or connect to public water. Thousands of East Enders were forced to choose between those options.

The East End has changed a great deal over those 30-plus years. Potato farms, which once covered much of Nassau and Suffolk, are a rarity now. As a result, the Colorado potato beetle is not the widespread scourge it once was. In addition, many people who drew water from their own wells back then have since connected to the town water system in Riverhead or the Suffolk County Water Authority’s mains in Southold.

What hasn’t changed is how susceptible our drinking water is to contamination from any source, not just agriculture. Or how farming can’t survive without the ability to protect its crops. It may sound trite, but that balance is essential to maintaining the East End we know and love. Temik tested that resolve, but we persevered. Let’s hope we’re never in that position again.