Are Recycling Facilities Impacting Yaphank Groundwater?

Environmental Law


Facilities recycling nonhazardous wastes, such as tunnel rock, trees, leaves, mulch and gravel are coming under fire from local Long Island residents and municipalities. The operations of two recycling sites near the Yaphank Historical District have led to nuisance complaints from local residents as a result of traffic, fumes, and smell. Additionally, the presence of these operations illustrates a conflict between state and local government.

Under 6 NYCRR Part 361-1, Recyclables Handling and Recovery Facilities (“RHRFs”) can operate as long as they work within the state environmental standards. Long Island currently has 133 such facilities recycling yard waste and clean demolition debris without much government oversight. These facilities only need to be registered. They do not have to be permitted by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (“NYSDEC”). The NYSDEC is considering giving registration applications for recycling facilities more scrutiny to ensure safe operation.

Tension exists between New York State and the local municipality because the state government grants approvals for these facilities without any concern for the local municipal zoning ordinances. The local zoning codes are outside the jurisdiction of the state agencies and have resulted in these facilities being approved to operate in residential districts. While the NYSDEC has no intention of closing these facilities as they provide necessary recycling of nonhazardous wastes and do not pose a threat to human health or the environment, this may change as unusually high radioactivity levels in groundwater have been discovered near a Yaphank compost facility.

Groundwater contaminated with radioactive materials is a threat to human health and the environment. If soil or groundwater is found to contain radioactive materials, the site will have to be remediated so that no person receives a radiation dose greater than 4 millirems per year from drinking the groundwater. The New York State drinking water standards are consistent with the United States Environmental Protection Agency’s federal drinking water standards. The New York State Department of Health maximum contaminant levels (“MCL”) for radioactive materials in community water systems can be found at 16 NYCCR Part 5, Subpart 5-1, Table 7.

A plume discovered in 2009 near a compost transfer station may be a source of high radioactivity levels in the Yaphank groundwater. The contaminated plume has impacted one private well, with radioactivity levels exceeding the state drinking water standards. Although it is unlikely the plume or radioactivity levels in the groundwater came from the composting of leaves and yard waste, DEC now acknowledges that the State must consider new techniques for managing compost facilities that best protect groundwater.

For more information on groundwater contamination and remediation, please contact Miriam Villani or Jason Kaplan.

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