On the Environment: County Exec Candidates Speak

Both candidates running for Suffolk County Executive this fall share an unwavering commitment to addressing the environmental issues facing Long Island, but their differences in tactics highlight strategies forged in different generations.

Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine, the Republican candidate, and Democrat Dave Calone, an entrepreneur and prosecutor who served as the chairman of the Suffolk County Planning Commission for eight years, held forth on issues ranging from climate change and its attendant issues — coastal resilience, renewable energy, public transit, sustainability of farming and innovation — to the health of our drinking water supply and natural lands at a July 17 forum at Stony Brook University organized by the New York League of Conservation Voters and a bevy of local environmental groups.

Each candidate expanded on their views in individual one-on-one sessions with NYLCV President Julie Tighe. Mr. Calone focused on his work easing regulatory hurdles for renewable energy and green technology, while Mr. Romaine pledged a bipartisan approach to problem solving, honed during 16 years as Suffolk County Clerk and six years as a member of the 18-member Suffolk County Legislature, after which he won the Brookhaven Supervisor seat in a 2012 special election.

With the evidence of climate change now solidly in our own backyards during a July marred by smoke-filled skies from Canadian wildfires, record heat and flooding, both candidates pledged to put responding to the warming planet at the forefront of their agendas.

“No place in the United States is more susceptible to climate change than here in Suffolk County,” said Mr. Calone, who chaired the county’s Superstorm Sandy Review Task Force.

“One of the most important things we can do to protect our natural defenses is protect and restore wetlands,” he added, pledging to update the county’s 2015 Climate Action Land and do more to control rainwater runoff.

“Climate change is my number one concern,” said Mr. Romaine. “I see sea level rise. Our habitat and biodiversity is threatened. I’m going to do all I can as county executive to address that.”

Mr. Romaine said he remembers visiting Mastic Beach after Superstorm Sandy, where overflowing cesspools mixed with oil from aboveground oil tanks to create a toxic mess in waters in the street that were still up to peoples’ knees after the storm.

Mr. Calone and Mr. Romaine had differing views on the status of the Brookhaven landfill, the last operating landfill on Long Island which is slated to fully close next year, which has been the source of groundwater contamination that has damaged the health of residents of neighboring North Bellport.

Mr. Calone pointed the finger at Mr. Romaine for a landfill that is “poisoning the community and putting the entire environment at risk.”

“It’s a fundamental failing of government,” he added. “The Town of Brookhaven has allowed the poisoning, and they haven’t come up with a plan for fixing it.”

Mr. Romaine said one of his first actions after taking office was to put the landfill on a course to closure.

Mr. Romaine said the landfill, built by New York State in 1974, was turned over to Brookhaven Town in 1976.

“We have to ensure that all communities have clean air and water. It’s not a healthy thing, and it should close,” he said, adding that his administration has also reached an agreement with the New York State Energy Research & Development Agency to put 170 acres of solar panels atop the landfill. He added that 75 percent of the landfill is already capped and the only items that are now being dumped there are ash and construction and demolition debris.

He added that former Brookhaven Town Supervisor Mark Lesko had agreed to allow sewage sludge to be dumped on top of the landfill, and was planning to keep accepting waste until the landfill was 55 feet taller than it is now.

“I said we are NOT increasing the size of that landfill,” he said.

Mr. Romaine added that New York State is now working on a statewide solid waste plan to work toward a ‘circular economy,’ with mandates that polluting industries take responsible for their waste.

“Each person produces five pounds of waste a day,” he said. “That’s 14 million tons a day here just from residential waste. This is a problem that must be addressed.”

On renewable energy, Mr. Calone said he was on the Long Island Power Authority board when they issued “the largest request for proposals for renewable energy in Long Island history.” He added that, as chair of the Suffolk County Planning Commission, he brought in representatives from the 10 towns and 32 villages to agree on the same permitting process for solar and wind projects. He said he also believes geothermal energy will be a big part of the island’s energy mix in the future.

Mr. Romaine said Brookhaven is one of the few towns on Long Island where transmission cables from offshore wind are openly welcomed.

A cable from Sunrise Wind is expected to come ashore at Smith Point Beach and travel up William Floyd Parkway to a connection point in Hauppauge, while a second offshore wind cable is slated to come ashore at Shoreham, also traveling down William Floyd Parkway to a substation.

“Sunrise wind can power 600,000 homes,” he said. “Think of it. We can substitute green alternative non-polluting power for what we got from LIPA… We welcome it in Brookhaven.”

The candidates had nuanced views on the Suffolk County Legislature’s June 21 vote against placing a 1/8 cent sales tax for sewers and onsite nitrogen-reducing cesspools on a ballot referendum this November, driven by the Republican majority on the legislature. (The Legislature is expected to take up the issue again at its July 25 meeting, its last opportunity to get the referendum on the ballot).

While Mr. Romaine said he hopes the legislature puts the referendum on the ballot, he said he “doesn’t think the county legislators were involved in drafting the legislation. They thought it was going to be for sewers, but 75 percent of it is for IA systems (onsite systems).”

“There are a number of things in the plan that are troubling,” he said. “I’m not going to let the perfect be the enemy of the good, but is this better than what we have?”

Mr. Romaine added that Brookhaven Town has been requiring any building project within 500 feet of any body of water to include an IA septic system since 2015.

He added that, if the referendum isn’t put on the ballot, if he is elected “another plan will be forthcoming as soon as possible, and that plan will be drafted in consultation with all 18 members of the legislature. We have to get nitrogen out of the water and I will strongly push for that.”

“I 100 percent support putting that on the ballot,” said Mr. Calone, adding that he’s been working for nearly a decade with current County Executive Steve Bellone on this issue. “This needs to get passed, and the legislature is stopping it.”

“Call your legislators and make sure the water quality bill gets on the ballot,” he added. “There’s nothing more important you can do now. They have one more chance, next week…. There’s a clearcut way to control our future. Let us vote.”

On preserving open spaces, Mr. Calone said the county has nearly paid off bonds on some of its original land preservation purchases from decades ago, and will soon in a position to bond more money to preserve land at today’s prices.

On balancing open space preservation with economic growth, Mr. Calone said he believes affordable housing and good paying jobs in the tech industry are the keys to Long Island’s economic viability. He added that, as an investor, he’s helped launch 10 companies, and he believes in the prowess of Stony Brook University’s innovators.

Mr. Romaine said he believes in transit-oriented development near established train stations, and he’s a “huge believer in open space preservation.”

“You want to be a planner? Imagine yourself a thousand feet tall and looking at Suffolk County. Look west and look east. That’s all you need to know about planning,” he said.

He added that he believes the government should support redevelopment of areas that are now filled abandoned strip malls and offices, and preservation of spaces that are still in their natural state.

Mr. Calone said he’s optimistic about the future health of the environment because “people are investing their time and resources into our planet. It’s encouraging to see. The tech I’m seeing is impressive. Tech needs to drive us forward. Old tech got us where we are, from a climate perspective.”

“I’m optimistic because we have such great people,” said Mr. Romaine. “We’re a nation that believes in our future. People in Washington fight, but I’m so happy I’m in local government…. Almost all the votes in town are unanimous because we work together. Tune out the nonsense on TV and focus instead on the future of this country. When all men will plant trees under whose shade they will never sit, we know the world is moving in the right direction. It isn’t all about us. It’s about future generations.”

A full video of the event can be found on the New York League of Conservation Voters’ Twitter feed.

Beth Young

Beth Young has been covering the East End since the 1990s. In her spare time, she runs around the block, tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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