- As helicopters blanketed the marshes with pesticides surrounding Accabonac Harbor and along Napeague on Tuesday, July 8, in the annual attempt to hamper the proliferation of mosquitoes, New York state courts are once again deciding if the threat of mosquito-born diseases is equal to the negative impact of pesticides on the environment.
Suffolk County fights this summer war against nuisance and disease on two fronts. Helicopters deliver support from the air by canvassing wetlands with invasive chemicals while a patchwork of trenches drains the mosquito's habitat.
Sitting pools of shallow water are ripe for mosquito development.
Vector (mosquito) Control, a division of Suffolk County Public Works, uses a controversial insecticide to police the mosquito population in the wetlands that surround the Peconic Estuary.
When the West Nile virus arrived on American shores in the 1990s, the County began an aggressive spraying campaign using Altosid liquid concentrate, better known as methoprene, a hormone mimicker designed to halt the mosquito larva's transition into adulthood.
Unfortunately, methoprene affects more than the mosquito population. The same hormone can be "lethal to lobsters, crabs and shrimp," warned Peconic Baykeeper Kevin McAllister
. Methoprene larvicide targets all invertebrates, including the many crustaceans that inhabit local bays.
According to McAllister, there is a less invasive pesticide available, a bacterial spore called Vectobac 12AS (Bti). The bacteria destroys mosquito larvae while leaving the ecosystem unharmed, yet is not as effective as methoprene.
The New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) regulates the use of pesticides by issuing spraying permits to county public works departments across the state. According to DEC regulations, Vector Control cannot use methoprene unless two or more applications of Bti have been attempted and found ineffective or if West Nile virus has been documented in mosquito pools in the local area.
P. Byron Backenson, of the New York State Department of Health (DOH) reportedly tested some 13,059 saltwater mosquito pools for the West Nile virus across the state between 2000 and 2007. Backenson recorded only one instance of West Nile in saltwater marshes, which is the landscape surrounding the Peconic Estuary. The threat of West Nile was not sufficient to warrant the use of methoprene, according to a letter to County authorities on July 3 from Peter Scully, regional director of DOH.
Kevin McAllister, of Peconic Baykeeper, has spearheaded
a suit filed against Suffolk County for what he argues are
environmentally unsound mosquito control practices.
According to McAllister, the County feared a rash of disease in the absence of methoprene and filed suit with the New York Supreme Court to have the regulation suspended. Vector Control asked for a temporary restraining order earlier this season to override the DEC regulation while the court hears arguments. The court granted the County's request, suspending the DEC regulations in the interim.
Meanwhile, McAllister is not convinced that West Nile virus poses a credible threat. "The fact that the County says, 'If we don't spray these mosquitoes, people will die,' is laughable." The DEC permit process "was in effect for two years [in which time no spraying of methoprene was administered] and the sky didn't fall," McAllister argued.
In the meantime, the Division of Vector Control began spraying by helicopter in Napeague and Accabonac Harbor with both Bti and methoprene on July 8.
The Peconic Baykeeper has also filed a lawsuit against Suffolk County under the Clean Water Act citing inadvertent spraying of the bays. A member of the Waterkeeper Alliance
, a non-profit organization launched by Robert Kennedy, Jr. in order to "provide a voice for waterways and their communities," McAllister contends GPS records of helicopters indicate repeated wide turns occurred over the bay while spraying the wetlands. Testing conducted by Stony Brook University
immediately before and after spraying showed pesticide contamination in the water surrounding Havens Beach in Sag Harbor.
Filed in 2004, hearings began on the suit in April and closing arguments will be heard on Friday, July 11 at New York Supreme Court in Central Islip.
This year, "The helicopter will be flying at a very low level and taking other precautions to control drift," according to the Department of Public Works.
Sag Harbor's storm-water runoff is funneled through a drainage pipe which empties at Havens Beach.
Concern over the water quality at Havens Beach has been in the forefront as storm water overflowing during heavy rains have broken past the berm that separates contaminated runoff from the bay at Sag Harbor, forming a stream of stray chemicals that flush into the bay. In the recent past, pesticides, sewage and bacteria have entered the estuary, defiling the water quality and resulting in subsequent closings at Havens Beach.
When heavy storm waters fall, chemical-ridden streams carve
paths across Havens Beach to the bay.
The overflow problem is a direct result of how storm-water is managed throughout the Hamptons, according to McAllister. In Sag Harbor's case, a single, straight trench siphons approximately 75-acres worth of run-off from roadways and residential properties through the surrounding wetlands into the bay. McAllister describes the marshes as the "kidneys of the bay," filtering bacteria and chemicals before they reach the water. Using straight trenches limits the wetland's cleansing abilities, creating a direct pipeline for pesticides and disease to enter the water supply.
Trenching began in the 1930s in an attempt to control mosquito populations. Patchwork grids were dug across a total of 17,000 acres in Suffolk County to systematically drain the wetlands. Proponents of trenching assumed that by eliminating the pools of shallow, stagnant water, mosquitoes would have nowhere to breed.
The ditches have not been effective in controlling the mosquito population, according to both McAllister and county officials.
A 2007 research project headed by Dr. Chris Gobler, an associate professor of Marine Sciences at Stony Brook University, concluded that salt marsh trenches had severe negative effects on the Peconic Estuary. The study found "significantly higher levels of total dissolved nitrogen" in ditchwater than in regular saltwater marshes, leading to an excessive growth rate in phytoplankton, which can cause harmful algal blooms (HABs).
McAllister recommended longer, winding drainage trenches. A meandering path would give plants the opportunity to absorb excess nitrogen and allow the soil to filter and destroy harmful bacteria. Curved trenches would also slow rainwater during storm swells and create natural tables that can confine flooding when the trenches overflow.
Pollution of the Peconic Estuary in the name of nuisance control is an "insult to the environment," in McAllister's words, "one that we already know how to fix." Eliminating harmful pesticides, such as methoprene, and digging long, snaking ditches will go a long way towards stabilizing a worn ecosystem.
Excessive storm-water can break through the protective berm, ferrying chemicals, bacteria and high levels of nitrogen into the bays.