Monday, May 21, 2007

Is Long Island Burning?

From Brownfields To Toxic Plumes, The Fire Next Door Gets Closer To Home

The New York Times recently ran a most interesting review of Joan Quigley's “The Day the Earth Caved In: An American Mining Tragedy”.

It chronicles the fate of a mining town, Centralia, PA, which, owing to underground coal fires, started in the 60s and, believe it or not, still burning -- and spreading -- today, went from thriving community to eerie ghost town; its inhabitants relocated, and every last one of its buildings bulldozed.

No, there are no coal fires burning below Nassau and Suffolk -- at least not that we know of -- nevertheless, the fire below is real, is spreading, and threatens to drive many Long Islanders out of their homes and off the island.

Let's take a look at the aquifers, Long Island's primary source ( other than Poland Springs) of drinking water.

For more than two generations, since the advent of Levittown, we've been pumping pesticides, herbicides, sewage, and waste of all kinds into our groundwater.

Yes, the big corporations have their share of blame, dumping everything from oil to radioactive material into the ground -- creating so-called Superfund sites that, when mapped, dot the island like a bad case of Measles -- but we, as homeowners, with our fertilizers, weed killers, and now-banned chemicals used to treat our lawns and gardens and to kill termites, must be called at fault as well.

Add to this the "plumes" created by spills of gasoline and the carcinogenic additive, MTBE, attributed to leaky underground storage tanks, and it is no wonder that the environmental studies of our drinking water read like a who's who of non-naturally occuring minerals and heavy metals, and that Cancer rates on Long Island continue to soar.

Above ground, skyrocketing property taxes, the lack of affordable housing, and a steady decline in our quality of life, continue to light fires under many a Long Islander -- the hotfoot as prelude to transporting both family and the dream of suburbia out of New York.

The island's infrastructure is aging and, in many cases, decaying. Parks, recreation facilities, and public amenities, decline in both number and in stature. Maintenance, repair, general upkeep fails to keep up with the creeping deterioration that threatens to consume the last of the green, open spaces.

So we ask, which will come first -- our last gasp for air above the ground, as we choke on the congestion, coughing up whatever change may be left in our pockets to pay for garbage collection (necessary to fill the dumps with still more waste to leach into our ground water), or that poisonous drink of water we take from the tap, filling our bellies with toxins linked to birth defects, breast cancer, and a whole host of ailments we won't even begin to frighten you with.

In 1962, it would have cost only $30,000 to put out the subterranean coal fires and save Centralia, PA. No one did anything. Not the feds. Not the State. Not local authorities.

In 1983, as the fires raged on beneath Centralia, it was estimated that the cost to extinguish the conflagration would be somewhere in the neighborhood of $663 million.

The Department of the Interior spent some $3 million on innefective containment measures, and then, some $42 million to relocate most of the town's remaining residents.

The fires under what was once Centralia burn on, as does the firestorm that threatens lives, livelihoods, and a way of life here on our Long Island -- both from above and below the ground.

As we consider the costs associated with fixing the fine mess we've gotten ourselves into on Long Island -- from remediating brownfields and Superfund sites, to creating an equitable, workable form and structure for school financing, to providing affordable housing and relief from burdensome property taxes -- we should stop to think about the greater cost, to all of us, of doing nothing.

Centralia may have been in Pennsylvania, the heat of those coal seam flames far removed from the once idylic suburbs of Long Island. The fires on -- and under -- Long Island, be forewarned, are closer and hotter than you may think. What we need here is not more in the way of fire below, but more fire in the belly -- from local advocates as well as elected officials -- to extinguish those fires, to salvage a way of life, to save our Long Island.

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