East End Congressman Lee Zeldin and his challenger, former Southampton Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst, shared their starkly different positions on the Environmental Protection Agency and Army Corps of Engineers projects at an environmental forum Tuesday evening.
The forum, held by the New York League of Conservation Voters at Suffolk County Community College’s Culinary Arts & Hospitality Center in downtown Riverhead, was unique among the Congressional debates held this year. Instead of refuting their opponents’ ideas head-on, each candidate was given 45 minutes, while the other candidate was out of the room, to answer an identical set of questions about local environmental issues.
The questioners were Louise Harrison, a conservation biologist who serves as Save the Sound’s Outreach Coordinator; Defend H20 founder Kevin McAllister and Citizens Campaign for the Environment Executive Director Adrienne Espositio.
On the question of retreating from the coastlines due to climate change, posed by Mr. McAllister, Mr. Zeldin said he worked for an increase in funding for the Army Corps’ Fire Island to Montauk Point project, and has worked for added sand for the Montauk portion of the project.
“I live on the Mastic peninsula. This is personal for me,” said Mr. Zeldin, whose neighborhood is poised for the most dramatic changes under the FIMP plan — the Army Corps plans to build a seawall around the peninsula and raise many houses in the floodplain there.
Mr. Zeldin said that, during Superstorm Sandy, the Mastic Beach Fire Department was rescuing people from second story windows.
“Mastic Beach is below sea level. When you get hit by a storm you have over 50,000 residents easily very affected,” he said.
But, said Mr. Zeldin, the community in Mastic has been split over the best way to deal with rising seas.
“In order to take advantage of buyouts and home raising options, it’s important that the local community rallies behind that solution,” he said.
Ms. Throne-Holst said the FIMP project is “full of short-term fixes.”
“Unfortunately, we learned a lot through Sandy. It’s reached a far more critical point than we knew prior to some of these storms,” she said. “I am not going to let the Army Corps run circles around us…. If you’re going to do a plan like this, you’ve gotta do it in a well-thought-out way.”
Ms. Harrison asked the candidates to discuss their vision for the future use and management of the federally-owned Plum Island and the existing infrastructure of the animal disease laboratory on the island.
Mr. Zeldin said that he’s working on two legislative projects regarding Plum Island — the first, which was passed by the House of Representatives this past summer, would decouple the building of a new animal disease research laboratory in Kansas from the sale of Plum Island, and the second, an amendment to the Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Act of 2017, would prohibit the use of funds from the bill for the sale or marketing of the island.
Mr. Zeldin said he was struck by the great amount of wildlife he’s seen when visiting the island.
“You would think you were literally on a vacation a thousand miles away from here,” he said. “Ninety percent of Plum Island is undeveloped. There should be public access, for more people to be able to enjoy this treasure.”
Ms. Throne-Holst said she’s intrigued by the de facto natural preservation on the island caused by the lack of public access to the island due to the animal disease lab.
“It has to be preserved and made a national park and used for understanding the flora and fauna and life of animals that live there,” she said. “It’s an incredible gift in this day and age. I take exception to the fact that it hasn’t been preserved already.”
Mr. McAllister asked the candidates for their views on funding for the Environmental Protection Agency. Presidential candidate Donald Trump, whom Mr. Zeldin supports, has advocated for abolishing the EPA.
Mr. Zeldin said that “a lot is going to depend on who the next (EPA) administrator is and what the next administration will do.”
When asked by Ms. Esposito to elaborate on that answer, Mr. Zeldin said “my position has been and continues to be the need to improve the agency, which is very different than advocating to eliminate it.”
“In order to assist with that effort… I would suggest on their side that the best way to improve the EPA is to strengthen their relationship with Congress,” he added.
Ms. Harrison then asked if Mr. Zeldin supported funding the EPA’s BEACH Act, which provides federal funding to keep beaches open and provide water quality testing.
Mr. Zeldin responded by saying that he’s worked hard on Army Corps of Engineers projects to protect beaches on Long Island.
“I don’t know if there’s another congressional district in the United States that has as many Army Corps projects as we do,” he said. “I will ensure that all projects move forward. I don’t care if you’re standing in the way as a Republican or a Democrat, we’ll do whatever we can do to get these projects done.”
Ms. Throne-Holst, who said she has a great deal of respect for the EPA, said “don’t tell me your values. Show me your budget and I’ll tell you your values.”
“We have a representative in Congress today who has repeatedly voted to defund the EPA, who wants projects to go through Congress for scrutiny. Tell me any other agency that has been put through that kind of a process,” she added.
Ms. Harrison asked the candidates how they can work across the aisle to come up with a solution to climate change.
Mr. Zeldin, who just recently joined the Bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus, said that members of Congress rarely get beyond the question of their position on climate change to work on a solution.
“How do you reduce emissions? How do you make certain delivery methods cleaner? There are 535 members of Congress, and there isn’t anybody I dislike enough to say I wouldn’t sit down and work with them,” he said. “We need to pursue the smartest policy to get something done.”
Ms. Throne-Holst, who has long been an advocate for working on solutions to climate change, said Mr. Zeldin’s joining the Bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus is “a step in the right direction,” but “I’m just troubled by the fact that we are so front and center on these issues and we don’t have a leader standing up for us.”
Ms. Esposito asked the candidates’ views on the Army Corps’ position on continuing to allow dumping of dredge spoils from Connecticut rivers in the Long Island Sound.
Mr. Zeldin said he’s “working hard to ensure the eastern dumping sites get phased out,” and added that the EPA “should phase out open water dumping for the western dump sites” as well.
Ms. Throne-Holst said that’s not good enough.
“I take exception to the idea that we should phase this out. We should be saying to the Army Corps ‘no this is not happening,'” she said, adding that if she were in Congress she’d plant herself outside the Army Corps’ dredging office and not leave until the dredge spoil dumping sites were abolished.
Ms. Throne-Holst added that she believes it’s “penny wise and pound foolish” for the EPA to let a trickle of money out for projects to improve the health of the Long Island Sound, which is an Estuary of National Significance, while still allowing the dumping of dredge spoils from rivers that are filled with industry.
“The toxicity of what’s in it is an unknown at this point,” she said. “One end of government is paying lots of tax dollars to clean up the Sound, and all of that gets undone almost in one stroke by the idea that millions of tons of dredge material” are dumped in the Sound.
In his closing comments, Mr. Zeldin touted his work helping to ease restrictions on catching menhaden after the massive fish die-off in Riverhead in 2015 and his work on Army Corps of Engineers and dredging projects throughout the East End, as well as helping farmers by extending a tax credit for conservation easements.
“It’s not like there’s a press release every time” he does something to help resolve his constituents’ environmental issues, he said.
Ms. Throne-Holst, who went dramatically over her time limit for opening remarks when discussing her environmental accomplishments in Southampton Town, which she called her “favorite subject,” said that Newsday had called her “a big thinker on the environment,” and joked that she intends to continue that “big thinkerdom.”
“My opponent has not consistently supported clean energy. He’s not committed to a strong energy future. He voted to support fracking in New York State,” she said. “There’s great distinction in our records here. I hope that voters going to the polls in exactly three weeks will remember that. The federal government has an absolutely front and center role to play here.”