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Long Island Environmentalists Urge Pine Barrens Preservation

A recent study by the New York Public Interest Research Group has put Long Island’s drinking water under the microscope. It found high levels of chemicals like PFOA, PFOS and 1,4-dioxane. 

The Long Island Pine Barrens are a rare 900-square-mile ecosystem in Suffolk County. They play a little-known but crucial role in protecting drinking water. 

“This ecosystem protects our groundwater,” Polly Weigand, an ecologist with the Pine Barrens Commission, the government body that oversees land use in the Pine Barrens. “It protects our soil from erosion. It protects our bays, our waterways. It protects our air quality.”

At the Dwarf Pine Plains in Westhampton, the soil looks like beach sand. There’s scraggly pitch pines and endangered plant species. These plants thrive in the sandy, acidic soil and rely on fires to maintain and renew themselves.

The Pine Barrens’ location is important — most of it is in the middle of the island and some areas are on top of the Ronkonkoma Moraine — Long Island’s “spine.” When rainwater falls on the Pine Barrens, it moves down into the groundwater, then migrates to the north and south where it feeds the Peconic River Estuary and bays, which are all important fishing areas. If this water were to become contaminated, it would not only put drinking water at risk, but would also threaten the local ecosystem and bays — our “lifeblood,” Weigand says. 

Rainfall refills the aquifers through the soil in a process called recharge. The Pine Barrens sit atop the island’s largest source of drinking water — the aquifers. Trillions of gallons of water are in the aquifers and work like huge underground sponges. The Long Island Pine Barrens are the only large undeveloped surface areas that allow for a clean recharge of these aquifers.

Ecologist Polly Weigand explains the role of the Pine Barrens in Long Island's ecosystem.

Past development over Long Island’s aquifers has contaminated its drinking water. That’s one of the reasons why environmentalists want to conserve these last portions of undeveloped pine forests — which once covered a third of the island.

“The Pine Barrens are important to the water quality underneath them in the sense that the rainwater that filters through the Pine Barrens into the aquifer stays as pristine as we can get it,” Dr. Henry Bokuniewicz says. He studies coastal hydrology and pollution at Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences. 

Right now, Long Island’s aquifers are threatened by toxic plumes of chemicals that move very slowly through the groundwater. There’s a plume moving through Bethpage that contains 24 contaminants. There’s another in East Hampton that just forced the area to create a new water district. And there’s contamination in East Quogue beneath a former landfill.

These plumes are the legacy of Long Island’s industrial history. The Bethpage plume, for example, came from a former Navy research and manufacturing site and will cost $585 million in cleanup. Twenty-four wells will pump out over 17 million gallons of contaminated water per day, which will then be treated to remove contaminants and returned to the ground as clean recharge. 

That’s why environmentalists say protection of undeveloped land, like the Pine Barrens, is important — when rainwater lands there, it provides a clean recharge at no cost.

The Pine Barrens are now less than half of what they once were, and probably would be mostly gone, but for a small handful of activists who fought for legislation to protect them. In 1989, these activists filed a lawsuit that stopped nearly 250 development projects valued in the billions of dollars, ultimately forcing the state to pass the Pine Barrens Protection Act in 1993. This established rules for protecting groundwater by limiting development in the pine forests.

On Speonk-Riverhead Road in Westhampton, crews are preparing to install a new water main. It will ferry clean water from beneath the Pine Barrens to the entire Westhampton area. Those areas face water shortages in the summer as tourism and irrigation ramp up.

That’s why the Suffolk County Water Authority is now considering using Pine Barrens water to tackle quantity and quality issues beyond Westhampton.

“We know that we need to bring in water from other areas,” says Patrick Halpin, chairman of the Suffolk County Water Authority’s board. “It's expensive to do that, but we know we have plenty of high quality drinking water in the Pine Barrens. And we're studying that. And I envision over the next number of years that will happen.”

If the remaining Pine Barrens are chipped away by development, environmentalists think it will create yet more dangerous plumes. They fear future water supplies would be forever ruined. They’ve set their sights on one project by developers from Arizona who are interested in tapping wealthy clients in the Hamptons. It would carve out another piece of the Pine Barrens for large homes, upscale condominiums and a golf course, right in the middle of an aquifer protection district in East Quogue. The developers have said they will closely monitor their wastewater, and recharge only clean water into the aquifer. Many local residents support the project for the tax money and community benefits they have been promised.

This report is the first in a series on the Pine Barrens as part of a collaboration with the Stony Brook University School of Journalism.