Penta isn’t the only poison to have graced East Hampton’s plate over the last 75 years
By Larry Penny
March 11, 2015 – 10:26am


You might have seen Senator Charles Schumer on the news on Monday taking PSEG and the United States Environmental Protection Agency to task for allowing 95,000 or so penta-treated utility poles to be installed on Long Island. Penta, or pentachlorophenol, is not only very toxic if inhaled, touched, or ingested, it is also classified as a probable carcinogen. That is why it has already been banned for use by more than 26 countries and counting. East Hampton Town and Village had an inordinate share of these poles installed by PSEG without regard for human safety in the early months of 2014.

Penta isn’t the only poison to have graced East Hampton’s plate over the last 75 years. In the 1930s and 1940s it was lead arsenate used on crop fields to kill both bugs and weeds. Long Lane’s fields have received a goodly amount. In the 1950s and 1960s it was DDT, used on the very same farmlands as well as in the salt marshes and freshwater ponds to control mosquitoes. It was banned for use here by 1970. After that came Union Carbide’s Temik to kill the Colorado potato beetle, and many private wells down-gradient of the area’s potato fields paid the price.

The Long Island Rail Road and New York State Department of Transportation used herbicides such as Agent Orange along their rights of way to control weedy growth, but eventually curtailed their use. Chromated copper arsenates (C.C.A.s) were used to treat marine pilings, bulkhead wood, and marine dock works in town waters as recently as the 1990s. As a result, the poisonous heavy metals and their salts — chromium, arsenic, and copper — are incorporated in much of the town’s harbors’ and tidal creeks’ sediments and will be for years to come.

Just because the use of a certain chemical pesticide or biocide has stopped doesn’t mean that the residents are completely safe. Much of the stuff continues to reside in the soils and bottom sediments; some is loosed into the atmosphere during dust storms. Yes, it does go away eventually, but only very, very slowly.

An analysis of the poisons in the fields along Long Lane in the late 1990s and early 2000s in the wake of some cancer cases among East Hampton High School students and recent graduates was an eye-opener. The school district was contemplating the purchase of land across Long Lane from the campus and installation of a new athletic field, but soil tests showed residues from so many pesticides, such as DDT, arsenic, and lead, that the idea was abandoned shortly after it was conceived.

A big chunk of farmland across Long Lane from the high school was purchased by the town during the Schneiderman administration in 2001. Good! Good Samaritans got together with the town’s blessing and began a community garden, the East End Community Organic Farm, or EECO Farm. Not so good. I believe they were misled by early soil tests into thinking that the land was safe for hands-in-the dirt farming and the community farm grew into a patchwork of different crops, but also took on the aspect of a small farm with many outbuildings put up here and there. Finally, a roadside farm stand was added.

A big winter dust storm in the mid-2000s stirred the curiosity of the town’s Natural Resources Department. A well-known book artist, Hilary Knight, living on the other side of Route 114, collected some of the settled dust on his windowsill and called me. I was the natural resources director at the time, and had it tested by EcoTest, an UpIsland firm. It turned out to be rich in arsenic.

This led to a series of tests of the farm soils between Long Lane and Route 114 over several years, the last authorized by the Wilkinson administration in 2010. The soils on the EECO Farm site were targeted and found to be almost as high in arsenic and lead as they were during the first round of testing 10 years earlier. The arsenic values were mostly in the range of 30 parts per million, more than 10 times higher than the arsenic values for samples taken earlier from non-croplands in the town such as the Grace Estate.

I thought something was finally to be done, but nothing was done and that’s one of the reasons my column this week is not so much about nature but about the nature of man.

Well-intentioned individuals have continued to put their hands in the dirt without gloves and inhale the fine soil particles without respirators each growing season day after day, notwithstanding the heavy load of contaminants. The foods harvested from the fields by these well-intentioned weekend farmers are even touted to be “organic” and sold as such.

In a memorandum written around 2010 and circulated to the town board, I strongly suggested that EECO Farm be farmed conventionally and professionally by a farmer and his equipment who might rent the land from the town, but not by individuals with their hands, knees, and noses in the soil who may very well be accumulating heavy metals in their tissues. Apparently, the memo fell upon deaf ears as business continues as usual.

And, oh yes, did I mention that the E.P.A. lists arsenic as a potential carcinogen, just like penta?