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SUFFOLK CLOSEUP - 'Silent Spring' A Fable For Tomorrow


By Karl Grossman

Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, published in 1962, is acknowledged as instrumental in the creation of the modern environmental movement. What isn’t fully realized, however, is the role of Long Islanders—and a lawsuit with as its lead plaintiff the great environmentalist from Suffolk County, Robert Cushman Murphy, in helping inform Ms. Carson of the threat pesticides pose to life.

The title of Silent Spring is laid out in its introduction, “A Fable for Tomorrow.” It starts, “There was once a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings. The town lay in the midst of a checkerboard of prosperous farms, with fields of grain and hillsides of orchards where, in spring, white clouds of bloom drifted above the green fields.” 

But, Ms. Carson writes “Then a strange blight crept over the area and everything began to change. Some evil spell had settled on the community: mysterious maladies swept the flocks of chicken, the cattle and sheep sickened and died. Everywhere was a shadow of death. The farmers spoke of much illness among their families. In the town the doctors had become more and more puzzled by new kinds of sickness appearing among their patients.”

“There was a strange stillness. The birds, for example—where had they gone?”

It was a silent spring. “No witchcraft, no enemy action had silenced the rebirth of new life in this stricken world,” states Ms. Carson. “The people had done it themselves.”

The special focus of Silent Spring is the super-deadly pesticide DDT which as a result of the book was banned in the United States.

In the 1950s, Marjorie Spock began teaching at the Waldorf School in Garden City and with a friend, Mary T. Richards, established a large garden at their home in Brookville. They grew food by the biodynamic method. This was particularly important for Ms. Richards who required a diet of organic produce because of her chemical sensitivities.

Then the U.S. government and the state conducted massive aerial spraying of DDT on Long Island to kill gypsy moths. The food in their garden was rendered contaminated for them and they sued. Other Long Islanders, including Mr. Murphy, of Old Field,  joined in litigation.

In 1958, a trial lasting over 22 days—referred to by the press as “The Long Island Spray Trial”—was held in federal court. There were 50 expert witnesses who testified about the dangers of DDT, 2,000 pages of testimony. The judge ruled for the government.

But “Murphy v. Benson” (the plaintiffs led by Mr. Murphy versus U.S. Agriculture Secretary Ezra Taft Benson and other officials) went to the U.S. Supreme Court to get the judge’s ruling overturned. They “lost the battle but won the war,” Ms. Spock later said as plaintiffs for the first time were given the right to enjoin the government to force it to provide a full scientific review prior to a proposed action affecting the environment.

Meanwhile, Ms. Spock conducted correspondence with Ms. Carson and advised her of the progress of the case and the evidence gathered. (Ms. Spock was a younger sister of famed “baby doctor” Benjamin Spock.) Between the “Long Island Spray Trial” and other information Ms. Carson was getting—notably about bird kills caused by DDT—the basis for Silent Spring was provided.

St. John’s University Professor Richard Hammond has called Mr. Murphy “a key figure in the fight against DDT.” He not only took the litigation path but formed Citizens Against Mass Poisoning. It was one of Mr. Murphy’s battles for the environment, internationally and on Long Island. Mr. Murphy, the Lamont Curator of birds at the American Museum of Natural History, authored Fish Shape Paumanok: Nature and Man on Long Island which I believe is the finest book on Long Island’s environment ever written. (I was fortunate to meet him in the early 1960s when I wrote extensively about the four-lane highway public works czar Robert Moses pushed to build on Fire Island and Mr. Murphy was among the leaders of those challenging and finally stopping the road in favor of a Fire Island National Seashore.) Paumanok is the native American name for Long Island.

I use Silent Spring as a text in the Environmental Journalism class that I’ve taught for decades. The assault on life by chemicals Ms. Carson wrote about is far from over. In Suffolk, the county long sprayed DDT with abandon but with it outlawed has gone to another problematic pesticide, methoprene, to kill mosquitoes.

Also, Ms. Carson was enormously concerned about the lethal dangers of nuclear technology warning about “the most dangerous materials that have existed in all of earth’s history, the by-products of atomic fission.” (She was diagnosed with breast cancer in the midst of writing Silent Spring and died in 1964.) Now, despite the atomic catastrophes at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima, the U.S. Congress just passed—by 361 to 10 in the House, a “voice vote” in the Senate—the “Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act” which seeks to revive and expand nuclear power in the U.S. And President Trump signed it. We still have very far to go.


Karl Grossman is a veteran investigative reporter and columnist, the winner of numerous awards for his work and a member of the L.I. Journalism Hall of Fame. He is a professor of journalism at SUNY/College at Old Westbury and the author of six books. 


SUFFOLK CLOSEUP - Gershon - Zeldin Battle In 2020?


By Karl Grossman

Perry Gershon is “strongly leaning to another go” at running for the U.S. House of Representatives in the lst C.D. against incumbent Lee Zeldin. 

Although a newcomer to Suffolk politics, Mr. Gershon, of East Hampton, won last year over a record number of other would-be candidates in a Democratic primary in Suffolk, including two former Suffolk County legislators, to get the Democratic nomination. Then he did better against Mr. Zeldin, of Shirley, than the last two Democrats who ran against Mr. Zeldin, then incumbent Tim Bishop, in 2014, and former Southampton Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst in 2016.

Mr. Zeldin, an attorney, was a two-term state senator before his election to the House.

Mr. Gershon lost to Mr. Zeldin by 4 percent of the district vote but carried East Hampton, Southampton, Southold and Shelter Island. He lost in Smithtown. And in the most populous segment of the district, Brookhaven Town, “we tied on the Democratic-versus-Republican lines,” said Mr. Gershon with Mr. Zeldin only beating him in Brookhaven by also being on the Conservative Party ticket.

If Mr. Gershon decides to run again—and I predict he will—he said last week that “I will need to convince the district at large that I represent a better future for them. I was at my stride at the end of the campaign, talking about bringing people together without demonizing the other side, the opposite of Zeldin’s vision.”

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has just named the lst C.D. as one of 25 “target districts” in the United States—a designation meaning this arm of the national Democratic Party considers the incumbent vulnerable. “The district was not viewed as competitive by the DCCC last year,” noted Mr. Gershon. 

There is precedent in the lst C.D. for a Democratic candidate losing and then, after intensive activity, winning over the Republican incumbent. Otis G. Pike, a town justice from Riverhead, initially lost his race for the seat in 1958 to GOPer Stuyvesant Wainwright of Wainsott. Mr. Pike then embarked on a two-year marathon of going to virtually every meeting of civic and community groups in the lst C.D., mixing with residents at every opportunity, not stopping campaigning. And in 1960 Mr. Pike won over four-term incumbent Wainwright and held the lst C.D. seat for 18 years, longer than anyone in history since the district was formed with its first representative Declaration of Independence-signer William Floyd of Mastic.

Mr. Gershon is also preparing for a whirlwind of activities. Indeed, he was heading off after we talked last week to appear before a business organization in Patchogue.

A major indication of Mr. Gershon seeking to run again came in an email he sent to supporters towards the end of last year. “As the year draws to a close, I’m thankful that all our hard work in 2018 made a huge difference. While we came up short in our campaign against Lee Zeldin, our loss was narrow—only about 4 percent. That shows that, if we keep working, 2020 could be our year to finally send Lee packing.”

In making a second run, Mr. Gershon would again emphasize strategies he stressed last year including, he said, widening “voter participation.” 

The impetus for Mr. Gershon, a successful businessman, to jump into politics was President Donald Trump and his actions and also Mr. Zeldin’s close political and personal ties to Mr. Trump. That might be a double-edged sword in Suffolk. Mr. Trump won Suffolk in running for the presidency in 2016. Has Mr. Trump retained a substantial edge here? Has Mr. Zeldin’s support of Mr. Trump taken a toll or is he still supported for his backing of Mr. Trump?

 “Zeldin is out-of-touch with the district,” claimed Mr. Gershon last week.

As a recent example, Mr. Gershon points to the partial government shutdown and Mr. Zeldin being “100% with Trump behind the shutdown.” 

Mr. Trump is seeking to run for re-election as president in 2020 and that would coincide with elections to the House—he would be on top of the Republican ticket. Mr. Gershon sees Mr. Trump, if he is a candidate for re-election in 2020, as being “wounded,” increasingly damaged politically by “disclosures” involving his presidency and initial campaign.

Mr. Gershon said “I believe the 2020 election is going to be about visions for the future.” If making the race, “I am going to run for a better Long Island, for better economic opportunity, for better environmental protection and dealing with what might be the biggest threat to the future—climate change.” He said he supports the recently proposed “Green New Deal”—a plan for environmental and economic actions—in challenging climate change. 

Mr. Zeldin would have the advantage of incumbency and a hefty campaign war chest. But Mr. Gershon raised plenty of money last time around: more than $3 million. A Gershon-Zeldin rematch will make for lively politics.

Karl Grossman is a veteran investigative reporter and columnist, the winner of numerous awards for his work and a member of the L.I. Journalism Hall of Fame. He is a professor of journalism at SUNY/College at Old Westbury and the author of six books. 


SUFFOLK CLOSEUP - Honesty In Sewering


By Karl Grossman

There was a partial win for major sewer construction in Suffolk County last week—two projects promoted by Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone were approved, one in Mastic and Shirley and the other in Babylon Town. Voters in Great River, however, rejected what was to be a third project.

The Mastic-Shirley and Babylon Town projects would be the first major sewer undertakings in Suffolk since the corruption-riddled $1.1 billion Southwest Sewer District project 50 years ago.

The Mastic-Shirley project is being made possible by $191.3 million in federal and state grants which in the referenda last week voters in those communities accepted. They will have to pay an annual sewer tax estimated at $430. The project in Babylon Town is made possible by $140.2 million in grants that voters in the communities of West Babylon, North Babylon and Wyandanch voted to accepted. They’d pay an annual sewer tax estimated at $532.

The Great River project would have been enabled by $26.4 million in federal and state grants which voters there rejected They would have been charged an estimated $755 yearly sewer tax.

The grants are being given by the state and federal governments based on the claim by Suffolk County post-Superstorm Sandy that sewers are necessary to provide “resiliency” to the county’s shoreline. They would, it’s claimed, assist in the growth of wetlands that would serve to counter storm surges. 

If the costs for the sewer construction are higher than anticipated, “the projects would go in front of the Suffolk Legislature,” according to an account in Newsday. 

In 1969 voters in the southwestern portion of Suffolk voted for the Southwest Sewer District. The project spiraled in price and was mired in corruption becoming one of the biggest scandals ever in Suffolk. The scandal brought down the administration of County Executive John V. N. Klein of Smithown.

With the scandal central to his campaign, then Islip Town Supervisor Peter F. Cohalan challenged Mr. Klein in a Republican primary for re-nomination for county executive and won and then won in the general election. Mr. Cohalan’s campaign slogan called on GOP voters to “Flush Klein.” (Mr. Cohalan is now Suffolk County historian.)

There was an array of investigations and indictments. Then Suffolk DA Patrick Henry, in taking action, spoke of how “we must prevent the cost of corruption, graft, kickbacks and payoffs from breaking the financial backs of our citizenry.”

Importantly, “the Southwest Sewer District was envisioned as the first phase of a sewer network that would extend north through Melville and east through Brookhaven [Town] to the Hamptons,” noted Long Island Business News in 2006 in an article about how, “The memory of the Southwest Sewer District is so potent that candidates who mention sewers still go down in defeat.”

But with Mr. Bellone, there was a dramatic change. Since his election seven years ago he has emphatically pushed sewering in Suffolk. He has declared: “Nitrogen pollution is public enemy number one for our bays, waterways, drinking supply, and the critical wetlands and marshes that protect us from natural disasters like Superstorm Sandy…More than 300,000 homes in Suffolk County are not sewered and are contributing nearly 70 percent of the pollution.”

But there has been controversy over his stand. Kevin McAllister, founding president of the Sag Harbor-based organization Defend H20, has pointed to advanced denitirication systems that can be added to cesspools as a substitute in most areas of Suffolk for sewers. He has repeatedly charged that Mr. Bellone’s sewer push is for economic development—with Mr. Bellone seeking sewers because reliance on cesspools limits development while with sewers there could be substantially increased development. Also, he says the basis for how the county has gotten state and federal funds for the new projects, claiming they’re for “resiliency,” is a “thin argument.” Says Mr. McAllister: “I am for honesty in sewering.”

Another serious issue involving sewering in Suffolk, which is dependent on its underground water table as its sole source of potable water, is it having many of its sewer plants sending tens of millions of gallons a day of wastewater out into bays and the ocean rather than having it fully treated and recharged back into the ground so the underground water table isn’t depleted. 

The largest amount of wastewater is discharged from the Bergen Point Wastewater Treatment plant in West Babylon designed to process 30 million gallons a day sending it out into the Atlantic through an outfall pipe that traverses the Great South Bay.

But plants in Suffolk also doing “outfall” include the Village of Northport Wastewater Treatment Plant which discharges into the Long Island Sound; the Patchogue Sewage Treatment Plant which sends wastewater into the Patchogue River; and the Port Jefferson Sewage Treatment Plant which discharges into the Sound. On the other hand, the new sewer system to serve Westhampton Beach will utilize recharge making use of a sewage treatment plant that services the county’s Francis Gabreski Airport in Westhampton.

Depletion of the underground water table is what has happened in neighboring Nassau County where all its sewer plants do “outfall” and thus lakes and streams in Nassau have dried up or lowered. 

The Mastic-Shirley project is based on recharge. But the Babylon Town project would have wastewater sent to the Southwest Sewer District’s Bergen Point plant and out through its outfall pipe into the Atlantic. Other big sewer projects Mr. Bellone is boosting, in Ronkonkoma and Brentwood, would also send wastewater out of Bergen Point into the Atlantic, impacting on Suffolk’s underground water supply.

Karl Grossman is a veteran investigative reporter and columnist, the winner of numerous awards for his work and a member of the L.I. Journalism Hall of Fame. He is a professor of journalism at SUNY/College at Old Westbury and the author of six books. 

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