At environmental forum, officials discuss host of issues including waste management, housing needs

A who’s who of leading environmental advocates joined elected officials in Riverhead last week to discuss and Long Island-wide conservation initiatives.

New York State Sen. Anthony Palumbo (R-New Suffolk) hosted this year’s annual Long Island Environmental Roundtable at Suffolk County Community College on Feb. 16. Mr. Palumbo welcomed a crowd of roughly 50 environmental advocates, elected officials and local residents.

Participants were able to introduce their primary matters of concern — which included water quality, coastal erosion and preserving open space, but the bulk of the discussion centered on waste management and affordable housing.

The meeting came on the heels of several recent statewide initiatives that will impact the environment — including the $4.2 billion Clean Water, Clean Air and Green Jobs Environmental Bond Act, a ballot proposition passed last fall, and the release of Gov. Kathy Hochul’s executive budget proposal for fiscal year 2024, which calls for $500 million to be allocated to clean water infrastructure.

A statewide affordable housing initiative outlined in the governor’s 2023 State of the State address was a topic of concern among the speakers at last week’s roundtable, particularly language that would grant developers “specific relief from environmental review.” Some in attendance interpreted that clause as a threat to the State Environmental Quality Review Act, which helps local agencies determine potential environmental impacts of proposed development projects.

“We are staunchly opposed to the governor’s housing plan and we’re staunchly opposed to any plan that does away with SEQRA,” said Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment. “If you can justify doing away with SEQRA for one reason then you’ve opened the door to do away with SEQRA for every reason. SEQRA … should not be eliminated for any objective.” 

Gov. Hochul’s address noted that “the state will continue to exercise crucial safeguards that prevent environmental harm and ensure that public health remains a top priority.”

Speakers frequently returned to the topic of solid waste management, which has been a hot issue at these roundtables in recent years.

“We need to think big and we need to think quick,” said Assemblywoman Jodi Giglio. “The Brookhaven landfill is closing in 2024 and we don’t really have any mechanism to get garbage off of Long Island. It is definitely going to be a problem that is going to be hitting Long Island big over the next couple of years.”

Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine expressed disappointment with the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation’s failure to produce a regional waste plan for Long Island. In lieu of state efforts, he said, the Suffolk County Supervisors Association (SCSA) will discuss measures to reduce waste as Brookhaven and Babylon’s landfills near capacity. 

“We cannot as an island address this town by town, this has to be done regionally,” Mr. Romaine said. “The DEC has not stepped forward, the association of supervisors is taking that step.”

Among the measures the SCSA will consider is a plan to create a market for recycled glass, for which — Romaine explained — the DEC has yet to issue beneficial use determinations. He said there are “multiple uses for glass that would make glass once again a marketable economy for us to use and reuse.”

Some environmental advocates in attendance shared their own ideas to reduce waste, including food waste recycling. 

Beth Fiteni of the nonprofit Green Inside and Out has been working with the Town of Riverhead Environmental Advisory Committee to determine an optimal location for a food scrap drop-off site and coordinate educational outreach. 

Karen Blumer of Taking A Lead on Zero Waste (TALZ) hopes a portion of a $250,000 state grant for Brookhaven and Babylon Towns to study waste management can be used to establish food scrap recycling pilot programs across the island.

“I don’t know about your household, but my husband and I, we don’t send one food scrap to the garbage collection,” Ms. Blumer said. “And what we’re doing, if you multiply it by [Long Island’s population], it would save us not thousands, but millions of tons of garbage just for food scraps.”

By the end of the 90-minute meeting, several advocates and elected officials in the room made clear the paths they hope to follow. In the case of Ms. Blumer, she hopes to get an analysis of food scrap pilot programs in the hands of Long Island supervisors. Ms. Esposito urged everyone in attendance to keep an eye on forthcoming information from the state DEC.

“The DEC will be putting out some draft language on how to allocate the $4.2 billion bond, and it’s going to go out for public comment,” she said. “So I think all of us should have the opportunity to look and see how that’s going to be spent and figure out how Long Island gets its fair share — or maybe a little bit more.”

Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell proposed that the roundtable attendees meet again for a separate discussion solely focused on solid waste management.

“It’s a train wreck that’s coming to our county,” he said. “Supervisors are working on issues, but it’s going to come down to three things: legislation on the state level, legislating at a local level and it’s going to come to people. 

“We’re going to need the public to participate in any program we want to roll out: zero waste, food waste, all those things,” he said. “It’s about changing habits. So we’re going to need outreach with an educational component and I think this is such a large issue.”