Official: Sandy debris burns in Yaphank hurt air quality

Newsday March 3, 2013


Suffolk County officials say pollution emitted from the Yaphank landfill was more than double the safe level while superstorm Sandy debris was burned -- a reversal from an earlier pronouncement.  In December, county officials advised Brookhaven Town Supervisor Edward P. Romaine that debris burning at the landfill posed no immediate health and safety threat. 

But the county acknowledged last week that on some days during a seven-week burning period from the start of November to Feb. 12, landfill employees were exposed to particulate matter -- a mixture of small particles and liquid droplets, which, according to the state Department of Environmental Conservation's website, can cause nose, throat and lung irritation and worsen chronic heart and lung problems.  "I do have some concerns of what these test results show," said Bill Walsh, president of the local Civil Service Employees Association union. He said no employees have complained of illness related to possible exposure, but he wanted to review the documentation before commenting further. 

Particulate matter is measured in microns; anything at or below 35 microns is considered safe, Suffolk County officials said. On some days during Sandy burning, levels in the immediate vicinity of the landfill reached 85 microns, Suffolk County Public Works Commissioner Gilbert Anderson said.  "There . . . may be an issue," Anderson said. "[But] we don't know that there was a health risk by this material being in the air."  State Health Department officials did not return calls for comment about the possible significance of the exposure. 

The high levels came to light after Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Farmingdale-based Citizens Campaign for the Environment, obtained the information from the county.  The documents she shared with Newsday show there were five days between Dec. 30 and Jan. 6 that readings were "significantly above" the safe daily average. "Suffolk County wanted a cheap, easy, quick solution to burning debris, but that doesn't equate to safety," Esposito said. "There was negligence in protecting the public."  Esposito said her group believes town workers and possibly residents were exposed to high levels of matter after burners called air curtain destructors were used to destroy about 55,000 tons of vegetative debris from the superstorm.

She called for a ban on the burners countywide.  "The county should be protecting the public and their health instead of its image," Esposito said. "The particulate matter is light, it's airborne and travels far."  Romaine did not renew a DEC-issued permit for the burners after it expired Feb. 12. "I was concerned about the burning and air quality," the supervisor said. "This isn't a strategy the town will be using in the future."  Because residents complained about bad smells and ash during the burning period, county officials said four air quality stations were installed to measure emissions in and around the landfill. The county also stopped simultaneous use of all the burners and slowed burning daily from 24 to 12 hours, Anderson said.

Burning was also stopped when winds reached 20 mph.  Anderson said residents living near the landfill were not exposed to the high levels, which he said could have been increased or influenced by high winds or trucks driving through the landfill.  Walsh said that before air monitors were installed in late November, 20 landfill employees spent a month working 16-hour shifts at the landfill.