Concerns Over Tarmac Storage of Sandy-Damaged Cars

The tarmacs of an old airfield in Suffolk County have become a graveyard for thousands of cars damaged by Sandy, and environmentalists say storing the cars poses a public threat.

"Sandy was a natural disaster nobody could do anything about, but this is a disaster in the making that is just simply an error of government," said Dick Amper of the Long Island Pine Barrens Society.

Amper's group, along with 19 other environmental and civic organizations, have written to the commissioner of New York's Department of Environmental Conservation, asking that the cars be removed from the lot in Calverton. 

According to Amper, the car storage area sits in a special groundwater protection zone, above a key aquifer that is a primary supplier of Long Island's drinking water. Toxic fluids from the cars pose a threat to that aquifer, according to the environmentalists.

"The public has put up $1 billion to buy the pine barrens," said Amper. "No one thought it would be turned into a junk heap."

Amper estimated about 30,000 cars have been stored in Calverton, but Riverhead's supervisor, Sean Walter, put that number at around 15,000. And according to Walter, the cars pose no environmental threat.

"What's happening here is no different that what you would see at Smithaven Mall or Tanger Mall," said Walter. "This is probably less damaging to the environment."

A private firm, Insurance Auto Auctions, is paying Riverhead town close to $3 million to store the cars on town-owned land in Calverton, said Walter. That money will be used to offset the town deficit and prevent a property tax increase, the supervisor added.

"This has to take place somewhere and I can't think of a better spot," said Calverton deli owner Tim Griffing, a local businessman who has benefited from the presence of the car storage operation.

Insurance Auto Auctions would not permit cameras from NBC 4 New York onto the Calverton property but said it obtained all necessary approvals before bringing the cars to the site and insisted the cars are doing no environmental damage.

"IAA worked with state and local officials to obtain all the necessary approvals prior to storing cars at Calverton," Jeanene O'Brien, vice president of provider marketing, said in a statement. "The cars are inspected before being stored, are parked on impermeable, paved surfaces and are monitored around the clock." 

The cars are expected to be removed from the site within three to six months, and will be auctioned off to a variety of buyers, including properly licensed and registered recyclers, rebuilders or dismantlers, according to O'Brien. 

A spokesperson for the state's Department of Environmental Conservation said the DEC "does not regulate vehicle storage generally," but said the department has in the past issued a notice of violation for the storage of vehicles on grassland areas used by certain bird species. The DEC offered no further comment about the storage of cars on the airfield tarmacs.

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