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Brookhaven finds proposed rail terminal to have no significant environmental impact

J.D. Allen
Town Supervisor Ed Romaine

Extending a rail spur through protected land and developing two warehouses to store, sort and ship tons of trash from a proposed waste transfer station in Yaphank will have “no significant impact” on the environment or nearby community, according to the Town of Brookhaven.

The town board unanimously accepted on Thursday what is called a “negative declaration” for the state-required environmental review process for the expansion of the planned Brookhaven Rail Terminal. The declaration comes despite a public statement from Town Supervisor Ed Romaine in mid-March that no proposal was before the town.

This freight rail expansion would help operate a waste transfer station being developed by the company, Winter Bros. This station was proposed ahead of the town’s plan to stop accepting construction and demolition debris at the Brookhaven Landfill by the end of 2024, and eventually curb the depositing of waste that is burned into ash when capacity is reached.

The proposal has been fiercely opposed by nearby communities of color in North Bellport. Monique Fitzgerald, a member of the Brookhaven Landfill and Remediation Group, said her neighborhood does not need any more “toxic infrastructure.”

Almost 30 lawsuits have been filed to close the landfill, remediate the ground, air and groundwater from suspected pollution, and pay for damages to public health and the environment. Earlier this year, the mother of a student sued after her teenage son died from cancer believed to come from toxic exposure while going to school near the landfill.

On March 15, during an environmental symposium at Stony Brook University, Romaine said, “Winter Bros. has no application for any rail facility before Brookhaven Town at this time,” after the community groups and the local NAACP chapter confronted Long Island elected leaders and the private sector for supporting “whitewashed” solutions to address the region’s waste crisis.

On March 29, town planners released recommendations to the town board on the state-required environmental review process, weighing the project’s impact on the land, water, air and community health, among other concerns.

The latest application was dated Feb. 22. Their determination of no significant impact was voted on by the town board on March 30.

The Town of Brookhaven has not responded to requests for clarification of the approval process.

“Brookhaven continues to lack the ability to tell the truth or keep us safe,” Fitzgerald said. “It is clear that Brookhaven wants this waste transfer station while trying to appear that the town is keeping their hands clean of this dirt.”

Determining impact

Last week’s adopted environmental review modifies a similar approval by the town board in September 2017. The update reduces the amount excavated from the top portion of the site, changes the layout of the proposed expansion of freight railroad tracks and changes internal access to the warehouses.

The review explores the impact the proposed facility will have on land, air, and water, community character and planning, transportation and human health. It found there would be small, mitigatable impact on the noise and odor the facility emits, the energy the facility requires to operate, traffic to and from the area, stormwater management and groundwater at the site, loss of open space and other aesthetic resources, and on plants and animals that live in the vicinity.

Trees were already cleared in January 2022 during a state-approved timeframe to avoid harming the northern long-eared bat, and relocating eastern box turtles, which are endangered in New York.

According to the review, the proposed facility would require the management or disposal of at least 41 tons of waste per month, and would not handle the disposal of hazardous waste. The warehouses would also not be considered the construction of a transfer station, dump, or any other kind of solid waste management facility.

The property is three miles away from the Brookhaven Landfill — down East Patchogue Yaphank Road, turning left onto Horseblock Road. This area of Yaphank is zoned industrial, surrounded by residential neighborhoods within a mile on every side. There is an environmental remediation site monitored by the state Department of Environmental Conservation in the area.

While facility operations would occur between Monday and Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., “railcar deliveries and pickups between the [Long Island Rail Road] and the [warehouses] would be subject to the freight carriers’ availability” and could operate at any time. The warehouses stand at more than 585,000 and 650,000 square feet. About 7,900 feet of rail track is also proposed to serve the two buildings.

The town board also waived the requirement for an updated site plan review, after reaching a settlement between Brookhaven and the developers, which includes Brookhaven Rail LLC owned by Winters Bros. The town code allows the waiver of a site plan for any building that will be used for a municipal purpose. The settlement comes after a dispute over whether the use of the freight rail could be approved locally, or through a federal agency.

The application before the federal Surface Transportation Board tried to be withdrawn in October 2021 after years of developers fighting for an exemption to extend the rail spur. The federal agency ruled in March 2022 the motion to be moot. According to the state environmental review, proceedings before the agency are "pending," but no action has been taken since.

In addition to adopting the negative environmental review, the town board on Thursday also approved a resolution to call on the state Legislature to approve a bill that would allow the town to eliminate parkland to allow the rail spur to extend into the 280-acre industrial property — poised for the waste transfer station — to “reduce truck traffic over Long Island roads.”

The town boasts it will receive “twice the protected acreage” from the developer in exchange.

“The bill that is before the state legislature regarding the conservation easement is to consider three acres of the easement on the north side of the property and swapping it for six acres on the southern portion of the property,” said Will Flower, general manager of Winters Bros. “In fact, the proposed changes to the easement will increase the property's total green space from 62 acres to 65 acres."

However, the state NAACP has joined the Brookhaven NAACP in challenging the legislation, saying the transfer station would disproportionately impact the health and environment of nearby communities of color in North Bellport. The organization is also concerned the state bill would allow the town to go through the planning process without public hearings or other community input.

Fueled by funding

The town board decisions were made the same week that New York’s Climate Justice Working Group announced the designation of more than 1,700 disadvantaged communities, 85 located on Long Island, including around the Brookhaven Landfill in Yaphank and nearby neighborhoods in North Bellport.

Under state law, those communities must receive at least 35% of state funding for clean energy and other ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change. The NAACP and other advocacy groups are urging the state to make sure that money gets directly into the hands of communities of color and affiliated organizations, instead of local governments and the private sector.

Winter Bros. is also seeing the advantages of “placing these communities on a priority list” to leverage funding for waste management on Long Island.

“There are shovel-ready projects that simply need funding to move forward so we are pleased to see New York State recognizing the importance of making a significant investment to plan for a better future,” Flower said. “And when I say better, I mean better both environmentally and economically.”

Winter Bros. is calling on the state to fast-track investments to find smart development in disadvantaged communities, which would, in turn, help New York reach its 2030 goals of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 40% — and 85% by 2050.

Flower also maintained the company “must advocate for investments that are in concert with the community.”

“No matter what the color of our skin, we all breathe Long Island air. We all drink from the same aquifer underneath our feet. We are all subject to the perils of illegal dumping and other irresponsible waste management practices. We must act in every community to come up with real solutions,” he continued.

This story has been updated to clarify actions before the federal Surface Transportation Board, which are "pending," according to the state-mandated environmental review.

A native Long Islander, J.D. is WSHU's managing editor. He also hosts the climate podcast Higher Ground. J.D. reports for public radio stations across the Northeast, is a journalism educator and proud SPJ member.