By Karl Grossman
It was a whopper of a mistake made by the Suffolk County Legislature as last year ended — elimination of the Suffolk Department of Environment and Energy.
It was done for economic reasons. Suffolk government’s tight financial situation required cuts, it was said. But in eliminating the department, the Suffolk Legislature lost sight of what we have grown to understand: for Suffolk, the environment is the economy.
And if the environment is allowed to degrade, the survival of the industries that depend on this being a green, sustainable place will be threatened. The tourism and second-home industries, which bring in billions of dollars a year, agriculture and fishing—all will be in jeopardy. As environmentalists have long emphasized, people don’t vacation in sprawled-over Nassau County.
But to keep Suffolk the special place in the New York Metropolitan Area that it has been, to save Suffolk, requires continued, intense, directed effort — and the Department of Environment and Energy in its five years had been demonstrating its strength at that.
Not too incidentally, one doesn’t need to point to western Long Island as a lesson of what could happen here. Last week my wife and I returned from a trip to the South Pacific on which we celebrated our 50th wedding anniversary. What a vision: flying into Tahiti. But once on the ground, it is outrageous to see what has happened to this island to which the artist Gauguin and others fled. Tahiti is now full of ugly sprawl.
Other islands of French Polynesia which we visited were as exquisite as ever: Moorea, Bora Bora, Huahine, Taha’a. But not Tahiti. Indeed, the guide books suggest that because of what has occurred, after landing on Tahiti you take leave as soon as possible. If people can screw up Tahiti, they can screw up anyplace.
And eastern Long Island, just east of the biggest concentration of population in the United States, is especially vulnerable. We’ve known that for years—and that’s why we’ve created here what are now nationally-heralded programs to preserve open space and farmland, and then a Department of Environment and Energy. It was a major accomplishment of the Steve Levy administration.
Eliminating the department saves relatively little money. Yes, the job of its commissioner is gone. But its 57 employees have been simply spread around to other county departments.
Lost has been the high-level access of the department’s commissioner to the county executive. The office of the environmental commissioner was just two doors down from the county executive’s office on the 12th floor of the H. Lee Dennison Building—and the commissioner was in the loop daily as governmental decisions were made, representing our environment.
This is what the bill creating the department said the county needed—an “independent” Suffolk agency as the protector of the environment. Such an agency would also include those who’d challenge dirty doings of some Suffolk agencies.
For example, the Department of Environment and Energy has had staffers monitoring the county’s pesticide-spraying program—and pushing for safer alternatives. They have now been transferred to the county’s Department of Health Services which has always supported the pesticide-spraying.
The measure creating the department declared that Suffolk’s “environmental resources constitute an inheritance that must be passed on intact to succeeding generations.” It spoke of Suffolk’s “unique environmental and ecological character…which make Suffolk County attractive to those who live, work and raise a family here; to businesses that are located or relocating here; and to thousands of visitors and tourists each year, whose presence generates enormous economic benefits for the residents of this county.”
The Suffolk Legislature in the waning days of 2011 forgot about all this as it eliminated the Department of Environment and Energy. Fortunately, some governmental mistakes can be corrected. Bringing back this county department can be accomplished, and should be, quickly.
My wife and I have taken drives in recent days to enjoy the lovely, warm weather we’ve been having and the beautiful place where we live. You don’t have to go to paradise in the South Pacific to find beauty on this planet. We have it on eastern Long Island. It’s as fine as any place on Earth. Our great challenge is to keep it that way.