Written by Katie Piacentini and Matthew A. Piacentini Friday, 23 April 2010 00:00
This Earth Day has a special resonance for many people who live along Hempstead Harbor and have worked for decades to reverse environmental pollution and degradation and to help make the waters and beaches a safer, more beautiful cornerstone of life here. Residents will remember just how bad the harbor had gotten from industrial abuse and neglect, but it seems that a new era has begun as a result of a tremendous multi-group effort, that is achieving a new lease on life for the harbor.
For the 40th Anniversary of Earth Day, celebrating a major milestone in the harbor effort, a collection of civic leaders and outdoor enthusiasts gathered on the shore in Glen Cove’s Morgan Park to recognize how far things have come in improving the water.
Leading the event was co-founder of the original Earth Day in 1970 and current NY DEC Commissioner Pete Grannis. For the four-decade anniversary of Earth Day, Grannis is touring areas that have seen major environmental improvements across the entire state and he said Hempstead Harbor was his first stop. Among the dramatic successes on Long Island, the DEC commissioner highlighted an improvement in water quality to the extent that Hempstead Harbor might be ready to support shellfishing for the first time in 35 years.
“This certainly is good news for the people of Long Island and a tangible example of the environmental gains the state has made since the first Earth Day,” Grannis told the crowd. “This once was a body of water that was damaged by industrial pollution, inadequate wastewater treatment and stormwater runoff. Today, here at Hempstead Harbor, we are looking at a renewed and improved ecosystem.”
The DEC has made an in-depth analysis of water near the mouth of the harbor to measure how much water quality had improved. In the final tissue samples of clams that were analyzed, it appears that shellfishing could become a reality soon. The FDA is now doing its certification process as the final step in this exciting local development.
Representing Glen Cove and hosting this event were Mayor Ralph V. Suozzi and Public Works Director William Archambault, the city’s representatives on the Hempstead Harbor Protection Committee. The mayor praised the ongoing teamwork between government agencies, local governments and civic organizations that have collectively effected positive change through many years of hard work.
“Earth Day is about inspiring and mobilizing communities to promote a healthy environment and sustainable practices that will benefit our children and future generations,” Suozzi said. “Hempstead Harbor has played an important role in our history and it is exciting to see the progress we have made in rehabilitating this important resource for ourselves and future generations.”
Town of Oyster Bay Supervisor and Hempstead Harbor Protection Committee member John Venditto said that when he was growing up in Oyster Bay, there were four houses on his block and he lived in the woods.
“The four houses became 40,” he told the crowd. “There was 10 times more noise and pollution and that much less open space.” He said that the key to success in reclaiming the natural environment amid such growth was the teamwork of many different governments, agencies and civic groups, which have made amazing things happen.
“It wasn’t that long ago that the thought reopening Hempstead Harbor [for shellfishing] would have been a distant dream,” he said. “And now I assure you, if we continue to work together and learn the lesson of today, the best is yet to come.”
Town of North Hempstead Councilman Fred Pollack is a member of the Hempstead Harbor Protection Committee and spoke on behalf of the town and Supervisor Jon Kaiman.
“I want to talk about where we were 20 years ago,” he said, citing the proposal for a 990-ton burning mass incinerator in Port Washington, “that we’d be looking across the harbor at right now. People were involved throughout North Hempstead, and along Hempstead Harbor, who were ahead of the government. They got together and they fought that proposal. And 20 years ago,” he continued, “there were sunken barges in Hempstead Harbor. We managed to remove those. 15 years ago, municipalities got together, recognizing that Hempstead Harbor belongs to all of us – and only by working together, sharing ideas, and doing things not on the basis of what’s on our own front door step, looking at the entire harbor, has made the Hempstead Harbor Protection Committee a model. Now there is a Manhasset Bay committee and an Oyster Bay committee. But the most extraordinary thing is to look across the harbor and know there is a future for us, for our families and for future generations. That’s what really counts.”
William Clemency, Village of Flower Hill deputy mayor and Hempstead Harbor Protection Committee chair summed up the importance of the event, saying that as you look across the harbor now, there is a “very different view than there was 20 years ago.” He recalled the incinerator in Glen Cove, various toxic shoreline superfund sites, rotting sunken barges and the faulty sewage treatment plant in Roslyn that caused the beaches to be closed on many occasions.
Clemency explained that the Hempstead Harbor Protection Committee was founded by former Sea Cliff Mayor Ted Blackburn and former assemblyman, and current comptroller, Tom DiNapoli in the mid-1990s to address these issues.
“We discovered that as a group we were able to hold much greater sway than one community,” he said, explaining that they were able to achieve funding and support from agencies like the DEC. Clemency recognized the contribution of important community groups like the Coalition to Save Hempstead Harbor as well, adding, “I think opening the bay to shellfishing will let people know [of the major advances] and we all here know that major successes have taken place over the years and this is something we should all be very proud of.”
The Coalition to Save Hempstead Harbor is indeed a major player in the fight to clean up the waters. Carol DiPaolo spoke on behalf of the group.
“This is a great day,” she said, “for all of us who have been working for so many years. It is so important to understand how far we’ve really come. So many things are so different from what we knew 25 years ago. In 1971 a Newsday article entitled “Who Is Killing Hempstead Harbor?” placed blame on industry, government and citizens alike, who couldn’t find their way to organize and make a difference and stop the assault on the harbor. There were rotting barges… toxic waste sites… garbage floating on the water and washing up on the shore and raw sewage overflows that could be depended on every spring from the old plant in Roslyn. In the mid-’80s the beaches were closed for so many days each season.”
DiPaolo also cited a 1980s New York Times story calling the harbor one of the most polluted bodies of water on Long Island. For this reason dedicated community members formed the Coalition to Save Hempstead Harbor and “doggedly” went after these issues, she said. But in order for change to take place, DiPaolo explained that the “adversarial” relationship between governments and activists had to change. Over time, authorities began to trust and value the data gathered by the coalition and a successful teamwork was built, upon which the achievements began to build.
“The partnerships we established led to what you see today,” DiPaolo said. “We have noticed on the water the return of marine life that has not been seen in our generation.” She cited a new presence of osprey, brants, fish populations, blue claw crabs and… “We thought we were hallucinating when we saw abut 100 dolphins spending the day in Hempstead Harbor playing… feasting and the harbor could support them. The nightmare we once groaned about is becoming harbor heaven.”
Sea Cliff Mayor Bruce Kennedy said that his village has a special bond with Hempstead Harbor, the shoreline being part of what makes Sea Cliff special. He praised the Hempstead Harbor Protection Committee, saying, “The results achieved through this team approach have been tremendous. There is still a lot of work to do but with this type of cooperation, the future looks good.”
Roslyn Harbor Mayor Yvette Edidin summed things up best for the younger generation present at the event, who remember growing up among the pollution and witnessing the birth of the movements fighting for better natural conditions.
“I realize how special it is that my mother is here today,” she told the crowd. “I recall, growing up in Roslyn Harbor, my mother running out to meetings at night to stop the incinerator. All of us should encourage the next generation to continue the activism and protection of our environment. I had brought my children today… this is what today is about. It’s about them. They love this park. They love that in low tide they can take their shoes off and wade in the water and catch fish and play with the crabs. They wouldn’t be able to do that without all your efforts and I just want to say thank you.”