Grossman Column: A new watchdog for East End water

Kevin McAllister of Defend H20 at a Southold Town Board meeting in February.(Credit: Cyndi Murray file photo)
Kevin McAllister of Defend H20 at a Southold Town Board meeting in February.(Credit: Cyndi Murray file photo)

The new Sag Harbor-based group, Defend H20, has emerged as a fearless environmental organization with a broad agenda.

It not only has the toughness to engage in battles against environmental wrongs, but a commitment to provide education so governments can do the right thing.

For example, the group, founded by Kevin McAllister who is its president, was integral in Brookhaven Town’s recent adoption of more stringent regulations for the discharge of nitrogen from sewage disposal systems in the Carmans River watershed.

Now Mr. McAllister is pushing to get other Suffolk towns and villages to follow Brookhaven’s lead.

Brookhaven’s move is a “critically important first step in sewage regulatory reform ,” Mr. McAllister said. He has high praise for Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine, a former Suffolk County legislator who previously represented the North Fork and Shelter Island.

For a decade, Mr. McAllister, the former Peconic Baykeeper, has been speaking about new technologies available for advanced sewage treatment. He continues to be critical of Suffolk County government for “not embracing these new technologies.” Meanwhile, he’s emphasizing that under a 1989 decision by New York State’s highest court, its Court of Appeals, municipalities can adopt septic requirements stronger than those of a county or the state.

The county’s Department of Health Services allows discharge of nitrogen in wastewater geared to “drinking water protection,” at 10 milligram, per liter, but this doesn’t provide for “ecological protection” of waterways. It permits the “harmful formation of algae blooms, some of them toxic, killing shellfi sh and fi nfi sh.”

Declares Mr. McAllister: “If Suffolk County doesn’t have the political will to do what it should, then it should step aside and let the towns and villages adopt their own local laws and define their own destinies relative to protecting local waters. If Suffolk County is not going to lead, it should move over.”

On another front, Defend H20, with supporters, has gone head-on against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Town of East Hampton, Suffolk County and New York State over an $8.4 million plan to build a revetment along the oceanfront shoreline of downtown Montauk. The 3,100-foot-long, 50-foot-wide revetment would be made by stacking 14,500 “geotextile” sandbags each weighing 1.7 tons.

Here, Mr. McAllister first tried education — “I brought a lot of factual information forward.” That ended up not working. So Defend H20 has brought a lawsuit to stop the project.

“The linchpin for the legal action,” Mr. McAllister said, “is the failure of the Town of East Hampton to adhere to its Local Waterfront Revitalization Plan which prohibits the placement of hard structures along the oceanfront.”

The thousands of sand-filled geotextile bags will function “the same as a rock revetment, seawall or bulkhead,” he explains. An oceanfront beach needs to be flexible enough to allow for “accretion and recovery,” Mr. McAllister said, whose degrees include a master’s in coastal zone management. Beaches need to “move landward and seaward depending on the conditions.”

The proposed project will cause the loss of the beach.

Mr. McAllister charges that government officials, although “fully informed … made a conscious decision to sacrifice a public beach in favor of private property interests.” He stresses that “we have to move on retreat and withdrawal from vulnerable shoreline areas rather than coastal armoring.”

As to the $8.4 million in taxpayer money, “there was a push” for the project “because these federal dollars were made available.”

The efforts for stronger nitrogen discharge standards and the lawsuit to block the Montauk revetment scheme, brought last month, are just some of the issues Defend H20 is involved in. Its “Program Agenda” includes eight areas of work, starting with “Education” and ending with “Fisheries” and, in the middle, “Pesticides.” It’s on the case of Suffolk County’s use of methoprene against mosquitoes, demanding that use of the toxic pesticide, which kills lobsters, crabs, shrimp and other crustaceans, be banned.

The Defend H20 board is chaired by Skip Tollefson, long a champion of Suffolk’s marine environment, and includes naturalist Mike Bottini.

“The key to our work is education — trying to move for more thoughtful and progressive policies,” says Mr. McAllister.

Defend H20,  just 10 months old, is an important addition to Suffolk County’s environmental scene.

grossman_karl150 Karl Grossman’s syndicated “Suffolk Closeup” column is printed in the Shelter Island Reporter, a Times/Review Newsgroup publication.