Hempstead Lake State Park: Response to the Environmental Assessment and Negative Declaration

DECEMBER 2018 by Brien Weiner

Despite minimal efforts by the Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery (GOSR) to give notice of public hearings on their Hempstead Lake State Park (HLSP) project, the Citizens Advisory Committee (CAC) and South Shore Audubon (with special thanks to Marilyn Hametz and Joanne Del Prete) managed to get the word out for a small but passionate turnout of residents and environmentalists (from SSAS, Nassau County Hiking and Outdoors Club, Sierra Club, and Citizens Campaign for the Environment) who spoke out against the removal of 2550 trees and the destruction of woodlands and wetlands. The hearings were held on October 17 at the Rockville Centre and Lynbrook libraries, and were covered by Newsday (www.newsday.com/long-island/nassau/hempstead-lake-state-park-trees-1.22023561), News 12 (http://longisland.news12.com/story/39308434/state-plan-to-fix-aging-dams-would-require-removal-of-2500-trees), and the LI Herald (www.liherald.com/westhempstead/stories/project-to-remove-trees-at-hempstead-lake-state-park-raise-concerns,108337). The coverage includes interviews and quotes from Jim Brown, Guy Jacob, and Betty Belford, and quotes from public comments submitted by SSAS that appeared in the November Skimmer.

The reasons we love and need trees are many: to provide habitat for birds and wildlife, to capture carbon and clean the air, to soothe the soul by sheer beauty. The most controversial reason for the removal of trees at HLSP concerns the integrity of the dams. GOSR claims they must comply with NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) regulations to keep earthen dams clear of trees; however, an Army Corps of Engineers report specifically on the HLSP dam, which is Long Island’s only Class C High Hazard dam because of the number of residents downstream, recommends retaining the trees. According to David Stern, cochair of the CAC and a professor at Nassau Community College with a Ph.D. in water resources engineering, the DEC regulations apply to well-maintained dams, which the HLSP dam is not. Removing the trees and leaving the roots to decompose could destabilize the dam and lead to catastrophic flooding downriver. The dam currently shows no signs of leakage. If trees are to be removed, it should be done with a pilot cut of a small area to test for seepage.

The dam issue highlights the need for further study and the full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) that many hearing attendees demanded. State Senator Todd Kaminsky was quoted in the Herald one week taking credit for moving GOSR along on the HLSP project and another week expressing concern about the removal of trees. We hope he comes down on the cautious side of the issue and joins the many voices calling for a full EIS.

Other deficiencies in the HLSP Environmental Assessment (EA) that were brought to light by the CAC include a Hydrological and Hydraulic Assessment based on limited data from a downstream tributary (Pines Brook), last collected in 1999, and not on current conditions at HLSP. Probable Maximum Precipitation predictions are based on a 1982 document that predates the effects of climate change. Further, the HLSP dam can hold back storm flow for only 39% of Probable Maximum Flow (PMF) before overtopping, while the DEC requires that Class C dams meet 50% of PMF; the EA should include an alternative with an emergency spillway to meet this standard.

Regarding the North Ponds, the proposed constructed wetlands of the stormwater catchment facility will have high-slope berms and provide questionable suitable habitat for the abundance and diversity of birds that currently use the ponds. Water quality testing for the North Ponds indicates that the existing ponds currently provide significant water quality improvements; the EA does not consider whether disturbing this area will significantly reduce the water treatment ability of the existing ponds.

These deficiencies of the EA can be added to the many that have appeared in these pages over the last two years. Nevertheless, even waist deep in the big muddy, the GOSR fools say to push on. According to the notice of the finding of no significant impact, “Subject to public comments, no further review of the Proposed Project is anticipated” and “if modifications result from public comment, these will be made prior to proceeding with the expenditure of funds.” Bids for tree removal were taken the same day as the public hearings, and GOSR’s most recent newsletter stated that tree removal for the dams will begin in January 2019. Tree removal can run through March 31, interfering with migratory birds and nesting Great Horned Owls.

In light of the public comments and outcry, we hope that GOSR will prepare an EIS, reconsider the destruction of trees and wetlands, and reallocate funds being used for purposes other than flood mitigation for Sandy victims, as originally intended. We thank all those who attended hearings, submitted comments, signed the online petition, and called local officials. We will continue to make our voices heard. At 7 p.m. on December 12, GOSR will have an open house CAC meeting in the East Rockaway H.S. gym; we will let you know if HLSP is on the agenda.