The Commack Community Association (CCA) met under the leadership of Bob Semprini, president, at the Commack Library on Thursday, January 19. The primary item on the agenda: organizing opposition to Townline Terminal, LLC.’s plan to build a one-spur train yard on the south side of the Port Jefferson line of the LIRR, tasked primarily with shipping out ash from the adjacent Covanta Incinerator.
Given the nearing closure of the Brookhaven Landfill, townships across Suffolk County are scrambling to find economic alternatives to continue garbage services.
Currently, ash debris created by the Covanta Huntington plant, located at 99 Town Line Road in East Northport, is shipped via truck to the Brookhaven landfill.
The proposed yard has been designed to handle inbound and outbound freight trains of up to 27 cars.
Renderings of the project show five tracks to the south of the proposed spur, which Smithtown indicates will have the storage capacity to hold approximately three days of excess (up to 79 cars) in the event of a rail service outage. The project’s proprietor, Toby Carlson, affirmed this figure and stated that other reported figures were not based on operational capacity.
The impetus for the rendezvous was a story updating the public on the project’s progress that ran in The Smithtown News. Many community members had not been aware of the project previously, although it and other industrial uses for the property have come up before in various public meetings. Townline Terminal’s filing with the United States Surface Transportation Board (STB) now has nine months to review the application.
A quick show of hands revealed many of the people present were residents of neighboring Kings Park and Fort Salonga. Also in attendance was Legislator Rob Trotta (R-Fort Salonga), a former resident of Commack.
Those present were overwhelmingly wary of the property owner, Carlson, or had concerns ranging from health fears from increased train traffic and the disposal of the ash itself to noise, environmental degradation, and the possibility of more truck traffic to the area.
A number of residents were from Glenn Lane and Glenn Road, both of which border the north side of the Port Jefferson LIRR line.
An attendee, who happened to be a truck driver, feared the railyard could bring more trucks to the area, with many more attendees seeing it as a prelude to something larger.
One resident, a mother, stated she moved to the area from Staten Island “to get away from the garbage,” only to find herself in a similar situation.
There would be one train a day for five days a week running between the hours of 10:00 p.m. and 5:00 a.m., according to Trotta. Additionally, he further stated the transfer of the ash would occur in an indoor facility.
The quality-of-life concerns seemed largely unassuaged by Trotta, who, while bearing no responsibility for the project, fielded questions from the audience.
At one point, one audience member asked if officials were choosing “money over health” in response to Trotta’s assertion that taxes would rise without the rail line.
Keith Macartney, president of the Fort Salonga Association, was in attendance and made references to previous sand-mining on the property in question, as well as general skepticism of Carlson.
According to Carlson, the sand-mining on the property concluded in 1995, six years before he joined the business in 2001. Likewise, Carlson stated that he has never been cited by the DEC and only received a citation from the Town of Smithtown 15 years ago for a landscaping violation, which has since been resolved.
The Messenger is currently awaiting a FOIL request for enforcement records related to the property to independently verify these claims. A town spokesperson believed that previous residential complaints were related to truck routes, an issue that the town believes was since-remedied. However, the Town of Smithtown affirmed that the Kings Park Industrial Corridor has some brownfields. Under previous supervisors, the area acted as a dumping ground for local waste, a legacy which the updated Master Plan outlines the potential for future remedy.
Another concern was that the railyard would permit the Covanta incineration plant – the plant that handles the solid waste for Smithtown and Huntington – to increase its capacity.
In a request for information about the plant’s plan for increasing its capacity, Covanta released the following statement:
“In November 2020, the Covanta Huntington facility submitted a request to theNYSDEC for a minor increase in the 12-month rolling waste processed permit limit to allow for operational flexibility related to unforeseen delays in major boiler maintenance, which caused issues during the COVID-19 pandemic. This change does not include any physical modifications to the facility and is currently going through the environmental permitting process.”
Not all in attendance were against the project, with Mike Rosato, president of the Kings Park Community Association, voicing his support for the rail over the alternative of trucking the garbage off Long Island.
The project itself has two constituent parts. The rail portion of the project is being pursued by Townline Terminal and is governed by the United States Surface Transportation Board (STB), which has the power to supersede local zoning. It is not connected to the Town of Smithtown.
The second portion of the project – the proposed buildings and site work, excluding the rail – would require a change of zoning, amendments to the town’s zoning ordinance, special exceptions to the town board and board of zoning appeals, and site plan approval. It would be subject to a full SEQRA review, including an environmental impact statement. A separate entity would also run the second portion.
Carlson stated he has been “working hand in hand with the town trying to get a site and project plan that works.”
At the meeting, Trotta gave a figure between 42 and 52 months until the facility can begin construction. Carlson agreed with that figure, stating it could be between four to five years down the line.
Eventually, with nearly 100 attendees unified in opposition, Semprini stated his belief that seeking out legal representation would be the best option, in addition to writing and calling the STB and town officials.
At that point, Sal Leon, former president of Townline Civic Association, who successfully stopped other forms of industrial development in the area in 2003-2004, arose to concur.
“We’ve had experience with the town of Smithtown, they will give you lip service sometimes, but they are not to be trusted,” said Leon after outlining his concerns over diesel fuel from the increased train traffic as a harmful pollutant and his past experience living next to a train yard. “We have to go beyond them, and the way to do it is to hire an attorney to get this thing killed; we did it with Townline…”
The local civics associations have since devised a strategy to prevent the project. As opposition mounts, Supervisor Ed Wehrheim (R) gave this comment to The Messenger:
“There are two certainties; that the Brookhaven landfill is closing in the years ahead and the end product (ash and construction debris) will need to go somewhere. Together, with my fellow town supervisors throughout Long Island, environmental organizations and the private sector, we have been unified in sounding the alarm for regional and federal support for years. This is not an issue which should be left to the small local governments to resolve… but it has. This looming waste crisis currently has two temporary solutions, with the ultimate goal of zero waste in mind. The first is railing Ash and Construction Debris off the island and the second option is to truck it off. If the latter is the only option for us, there will be a significant reduction in quality of life, from skyrocketing waste removal taxes and painstaking traffic to environmental impacts and broken-down infrastructure… We remain ready, and willing to work with upper levels of government to solve this problem and ensure the people of our community can afford to live on Long Island for generations to come.”
The town also noted it will be publishing a fact sheet in the coming days to address expressed concerns on the SmithtownNY.gov website and on social media.
Trotta, Carlson and the town also disagree with the belief among some community members that the project would increase truck service to the area. They argue that it would remove trucks headed from Covanta to the Brookhaven landfill and very soon to Pennsylvania if a rail solution is not found. Instead, they argue, trucks will now only be needed to bring ash and debris across Townline Road to the proposed site of the spur for removal.
Then, they state, a further reduction of trucks from the roads would occur as any industrial materials already brought in for the surrounding businesses could now utilize the rail.
There are ‘zero waste’ recycling center site proposals by Covanta and Winter Brothers, as well as other proposals for railyards serving the same purpose across the island. The latter may reduce the need for such a facility on Townline Road if they are constructed before Townline Terminal’s facility.
“They’re making it sound like if this doesn’t happen, we’ll suffer badly,” said Semprini in response to the rhetoric coming from Smithtown’s public officials.
In conversations with Winter Brothers, Semprini asserts that even without the facility, there is a suitable Winter Brothers Facility in Babylon that could be used to receive the Covanta ash via truck.
A feat that can be accomplished without “destroying the surrounding area,” added Semprini.