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Brookhaven Landfill Action and Remediation Group

Trucks line up outside the Brookhaven landfill. Photo courtesy Samantha Rutt

By Samantha Rutt

The Town of Brookhaven landfill, a towering 192-acre presence on Yaphank’s landscape, is set for a partial closure this year, but its complete demise might not be as imminent as planned. 

The initial plan, set in motion years ago, aimed for a complete closure of the landfill by 2024. While construction and demolition debris disposal has been earmarked to cease by the end of 2024, the facility could remain open until 2027 or 2028 to accept incinerator ash, sparking debates about environmental impact and responsible waste management. 

A 2021 Town of Brookhaven exploratory report stated, “The Brookhaven landfill is anticipated to reach the capacity limits of its DEC permit by December 2024, creating a challenge for residents and Brookhaven Town regarding the future disposal of MSW [municipal solid waste], ash and construction and demolition debris.”

However, new Town Supervisor Dan Panico (R) has thrown a wrench in that timeline, seeking a permit extension allowing the facility to accept ash from Covanta’s Westbury waste-to-energy plant until 2027 or 2028. 

“We will cease taking construction and demolition debris at the end of 2024, and we will continue taking ash, not only from the Town of Brookhaven Covanta but from Islip, Smithtown and Huntington as it is a regional ash fill,” Panico said in an interview with Newsday. “That will probably go through 2027 and cease in the first month of 2028.” 

The town would need to seek an extension of its state-issued permit when it expires in July 2026. This decision stems from the lack of alternative disposal solutions for the roughly 340,000 tons of ash generated annually by Covanta, which serves much of Suffolk County. The landfill stands as Brookhaven’s second-biggest source of income after property taxes, expected to generate $55 million in 2024, implying sizable financial implications for when the property closes.

“It is not necessarily an extension because the waste-to-energy facilities are a reality and a necessity on Long Island,” Panico said in an interview.

The news has divided the community. Proponents of the extension argue it buys valuable time for exploring alternatives. Opponents, however, express concerns about potential environmental repercussions. 

Locals have gathered together in efforts against the landfill, raising their concerns. Currently, the town is underway with a state-ordered assessment by the Department of Environmental Conservation of a toxic plume emanating from the landfill. 

In North Bellport and areas surrounding the landfill, community members have joined together to create the Brookhaven Landfill Action and Remediation Group. This group has committed itself to finding sustainable solutions for the disposal of Long Island’s waste. 

“The time is now. The time was yesterday,” Monique Fitzgerald, Brookhaven Landfill Action and Remediation Group co-founder, said on the group’s Facebook page. “The time was 50 years ago. This is not to wait. You’re talking about this, which is going to take two years. We can’t keep pushing this down the road. If we have a moment of intervention, this is the time to act.”

In densely populated areas like Long Island, with limited landfill space, communities are often left to grapple with balancing environmental concerns and the practicalities of managing massive amounts of waste.

The Town Board is currently evaluating the permit extension request, considering public input and environmental assessments. Environmental groups like the Long Island Pine Barrens Society have voiced their opposition, urging the board to explore alternatives like recycling, composting and waste-to-fuel technologies.

The Brookhaven landfill saga stands as a microcosm of Long Island’s larger waste management challenges. As the closure deadline looms, the community faces a crucial decision: Extend the landfill’s life for a temporary fix or invest in long-term, sustainable solutions. The next few years will be critical in shaping the future of waste management in the region and potentially impacting the environment and communities for years to come.

A satellite image of the Brookhaven Town landfill, located on Horseblock Road in Yaphank. Photo from Google Maps
By Nasrin Zahed

Several years after discovering “forever chemicals” leaking into Long Island’s groundwater near the Town of Brookhaven Landfill, located on Horseblock Road in Yaphank, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation calls for “corrective action.”

A plume of highly lethal PFAS, PFOS, and 1,4-dioxane contamination has been uncovered in downgradient wells within the town landfill. The contaminants, commonly called “forever chemicals,” cannot be broken down by the human body or the environment.

According to a statement from the Brookhaven Landfill Action and Remediation Group, or BLARG, exposure to these chemicals “has been linked to some cancers, immune, fertility, thyroid and other health conditions.”

NYSDEC is requiring Brookhaven to begin assessing the current damage and determining a course of immediate action. The town is set to issue a notice to the public detailing the extent of the situation, its effect on local wildlife and communities and the next step in removing and properly disposing of the chemicals. Brookhaven will also hold a public forum to gather community feedback.

BLARG’s statement considered NYSDEC’s action “a day late and a dollar short.”

Kerim Odekon, a BLARG member, stated, “The only news is now DEC acknowledges the problem, which community members have raised to NYS and the town for years.”

Although NYSDEC determined the PFAS levels present “no new threats to drinking water,” community members are still concerned about the long-term effects on private water sources and wildlife.

Town Councilmember Jonathan Kornreich (D-Stony Brook) said he believes the fault should not be placed on the town exclusively, maintaining that “there is no question that the state has to step in as well,” he said.

Kornreich also noted the role of individual consumers and community members in remediating the issue. 

“We have to figure out our role in the larger question — that most of us dispose of large amounts of garbage every day,” he said, adding that consumers should consider how they as individuals contribute to the root problems.

The landfill is set to cease collection of certain trash and demolition debris by December 2024. Once the landfill reaches its capacity, the next step is to transfer out ash, potentially adding years to the timeline for full-scale closure.

BLARG continued to urge that the Brookhaven Landfill be shut down sooner rather than later, suggesting that the plume has gone too far.

“The first step is to set a closure date for the Brookhaven Landfill,” the BLARG statement reads, adding, “DEC must step in to set a date for the closure of the landfill.”

The Brookhaven landfill was a topic of conversation at the MLK event. Google maps

By Tom Lyon

More than 110 folks zoomed in last Saturday afternoon, Jan. 16, for the annual, and first-ever virtual, Martin Luther King Jr. Unity Festival and forum presented by Building Bridges in Brookhaven. The Rev. Gregory Leonard, of the Bethel AME Church in Setauket opened the afternoon with a challenge: “To understand that we are all in this together.”

Abena Asare was one of the featured speakers during the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Unity Festival and forum. Photo from Abena Asare

As in the past, Building Bridges held two informative programs with guest presenters and music. Food was OYO — on your own — but the popular Share Fair Exchange for nonprofit groups had to be postponed until spring. Four speakers addressed two long simmering issues for Long Island and presented us with an urgent call to action for each.

Two stories of toxic ecological damage to our Island and to some of our most vulnerable neighbors came first.

Stony Brook University history associate professor Abena Asare, one of the leaders of the newly established Brookhaven Landfill Action and Remediation Group, gave a sobering history of the last remaining waste disposal facility in the Town of Brookhaven. She provided a parallel history of its growth at a time when nearby communities were becoming alleged victims of racially charged real-estate practices. A local elementary school and largely minority community there have had severe health issues and high death rates that are arguably the highest for any community on Long Island. 

As the landfill has grown to 192 acres and more than 200 feet in height, plans are developing for its closure by 2024. Meanwhile, it still continues to accept waste materials for 1.9 million Long Islanders even though Brookhaven Town’s population is only about 500,000 people. “This is a regional problem,” Asare said. “We need a regional solution. Landfills are closing across the country in environmentally safe ways every day, but we are sadly way behind.”

Next Irma Solis, director of the Suffolk County Chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union, presented a history of the illegal toxic dumping and subsequent closing of Roberto Clemente Park and playground in Brentwood. The tragic story is also one of a powerful and ultimately successful community response.

It took strong local organizing and a long legal battle for that minority community to get justice and to see the park and pool decontaminated and finally reopened in 2018 after a six-year closure. There were clear parallels in the two stories. As the session ended, we could hear Asare call to Solis, “You most definitely have to come and speak with our group.”

Two other guests — members of the New York State Poor People’s Campaign Rebecca Garrard from the state capital region and Michael O’Brien from Nassau — spoke about the rental housing and eviction crisis that looms ahead of New York and Long Island. Currently there is an estimated $3.5 billion in unpaid back rent today across New York state and the recently extended moratorium is clearly not a permanent solution, according to Garrard.

Garrard gave a sober and fact-filled presentation with a compelling argument for bipartisan cooperation on a national level as the only viable long-term solution. Without that, we may face an epidemic of homelessness in the near future.

O’Brien spoke of the need to empower and educate tenants about their rights in order to prevent abuse. He told stories of local private groups bringing attention to this issue and providing education and emergency assistance. These groups were inspiring examples of the type of service that Coretta Scott King spoke about in 1992 when she challenged Americans to turn Dr. King’s holiday into “a day on, not a day off.” 

A video of the entire program is available on the Building Bridges in Brookhaven Facebook page.

Building Bridges wants to thank the presenters, musicians Jamel Coy Hudson and John Schmeiser, Long Island Poor People’s Campaign, Setauket Presbyterian Church — especially the Rev. Ashley McFaul-Erwin — and the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship at Stony Brook for their assistance and support.

Tom Lyon is a co-founder of Building Bridges in Brookhaven.