Over three months after the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation ordered Sandy-damaged cars off a portion of Enterprise Park at Calverton, the vehicles remain.
And environmentalists said the cars have "utterly destroyed" state-protected grasslands in the area.
According to Richard Amper, executive director of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society, more than 30 acres in a state-designated special groundwater protection area and endangered species habitat have been “turned into a giant mud hole” at EPCAL.
“It’s a disaster and nobody in government did anything to prevent the destruction of this land, which was supposed to have been protected by state and local legislation,” Amper said. “It’s an environmental disaster and it’s going to get worse.”
Amper said environmentalists warned local, county and state officials more than two months ago, that the storage of more than 30,000 cars wrecked during Superstorm Sandy would result in environmental issues.
“The Town of Riverhead, County of Suffolk and State of New York did nothing to prevent this destruction and continue to sit on the sidelines as more environmental assault continues,” Amper said.
Amper said aerial photographs and video show forest-bordered grasslands that have been destroyed. The grasslands, he said, are home to endangered species and sit above Long Island’s underground aquifer system, which residents depend upon for drinking water.
The grasslands' destruction occurred on the property owned by Jan Burman of the Engel Burman group, where a company called Copart is storing the vehicles, Amper said; he added that thousands of cars remain on town-owned property, as well.
The DEC has said the cars that are sited on Riverhead-town owned property pose no environmental issues.
“We’re now exploring legal options to force government to prevent even more destruction in the Pine Barrens,” Amper said. “This episode demonstrates the complete abdication of responsibility of government to protect water quality and habitat.”
Riverhead Town Supervisor Sean Walter said that the damaged grasslands prove "exactly what we've said all along." The cars sited by the Copart company on the Burman property, he said, "were stored in a way that is not proper. They shouldn't have done it, and now they have destroyed some grasslands that have to be restored."
The DEC, Walter said, took action in November, ordering that the cars be removed, but as of early March, the vehicles remain at the site.
"Unfortunately, I don't know why the DEC has not been successful in getting the cars removed," Walter said. "And if the State of New York cannot get them removed, to pile on Riverhead enforcement action doesn't make any sense. Hopefully, they'll be successful, but now it seems to be the cost of business by Copart."
Neither the DEC, Burman, or representatives from Copart immediately returned a request for comment.
In November, cars sited on a parcel of land located at EPCAL first ignited the continuing storm of controversy.
In a letter dated Nov. 26, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation's Robert F. Marsh, regional supervisor of natural resources, told Jan Burman of the Engel Berman Group that damaged cars stored on a 35-acre EPCAL parcel he owns are a threat to endangered species.
The grassland habitat upon which the cars are stored, Marsh said, is home to two species listed as threatened or endangered in New York State. The storage of vehicles, Marsh said, is taking place within 1000 feet of a documented tiger salamander, Abystoma tigrinum, breeding pond, and within grassland foraging habitat of the northern harrier, Circus cyaneus.
According to the letter, no individual can engage in an activity that could result in a "take" of any endangered species.
The storage of the motor vehicles, the letter stated, "could result in the direct take of tiger salamanders in that the operation of heavy equipment and the storage of cars within upland habitat could crush salamanders that are found in shallow underground burrows. The storage of cars within the grassland is also an adverse modification of foraging habitat for northern harriers."
The area, Marsh said, also serves as a winter foraging habitat for the short-eared owl, another state-endangered species, which come to the area in December. Should they arrive, with the cars still not removed, additional violations could result, Marsh said.
Contravention of the regulations are violations or misdemeanors, punishable by fines of $2350 per violation, Marsh said. Penalties of $2350 may be assessed for each violation, for each species onsite, every day the violation continues.
Burman was ordered to "cease" operations at the location immediately and to remove the vehicles as soon as possible or face enforcement action.
Marsh also sent a letter to Trent Hoban, the regional manager of Copart, the company storing the cars on the Burman-owned land.
"The DEC will always assist property owners to follow best management practices to protect the environment," said DEC spokeswoman Aphrodite Montalvo. "In this case, the Town of Riverhead contacted DEC to discuss the use of the Town-owned property at EPCAL for storage of vehicles, but the private property owner involved did not. DEC has directed the private property owner and the lessee using that portion of the EPCAL property to take immediate steps to relocate the vehicles to bring the site into compliance."
The cars ordered for removal are on a diferent parcel of EPCAL than the sites authorized by the town for lease to store cars damaged by Hurricane Sandy.
Walter said because the vehicles on town-owned EPCAL parcels are placed on asphalt and concrete, the proposal poses no problem; the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, he stressed, has said damaged vehicles should not be placed in yards, or on any impervious survace.
Montalvo said the DEC had no issues with the town's agreement. "The DEC is working with the town to follow best management practices to protect the environment. The Town of Riverhead is limiting vehicle storage to paved areas of the property. The DEC does not have jurisdiction over the storage of these cars from a materials management perspective," she said.