Hempstead Lake State Park: Hempstead Lake State Park Update

APRIL 2020 by Brien Weiner

As of this writing, the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation has not approved permits for tree removal or wetlands work for the Hempstead Lake State Park (HLSP) Project, nor has it responded to SSAS comments. Our comments focused on failure to meet DEC standards for dam repair and on inadequate and corrupted testing for toxins, as well as destruction of habitat in one of only two NYS designated Important Bird Areas in Nassau County. The HLSP Project has the potential to cause dam failure, catastrophic flooding, and watershed contamination -- consequences that are beyond irony for a coastal resiliency project funded with a Sandy recovery grant. They reflect the tragedy of a systemic failure of our environmental laws.

Indeed, to make a bad situation worse, on March 26, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a sweeping relaxation of environmental rules in response to the coronavirus pandemic. The EPA stated, “In general, the EPA does not expect to seek penalties for violations of routine compliance monitoring, integrity testing, sampling, laboratory analysis, training, and reporting or certification obligations in situations where the EPA agrees that COVID-19 was the cause of the noncompliance and the entity provides supporting documentation to the EPA upon request.” This is in addition to rolling back the Clear Air and Clean Water Acts, the National Environmental Protection Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and many other environmental laws -- rollbacks that preceded the coronavirus pandemic.

There will be health and economic consequences stemming from environmental degradation that will persist long past the pandemic, even if rules are restored. Inaction on the environment has filtered down to all levels of government as state environmental legislation and budget funding are stalled and even local recycling programs are suspended. And paradoxically, our open space is more precious to us than ever as we practice social distancing. We need it for our physical and mental health, for exercise and relief from anxiety.

HLSP hangs in precarious balance as an oasis of green in a suburban sea of gray, for both people and wildlife. Its trees anchor a complex ecosystem, an example of which was provided by longtime SSAS member John Holly in a letter to Governor Cuomo: "Picture how you would feel if your Grandchild were bit- ten by a rodent while playing in the Park. This scenario is a possibility in Hempstead Lake State Park. Natural predators like Hawks and Owls keep areas, like our parks, free from rats that gravitate to poison-free spots like trash containers near playgrounds. The State has scheduled the cutting of hundreds of trees in Hempstead Lake State Park, habitat of Great Horned Owls. If the trees go, so will the Owls, leaving the rats to proliferate. There is no environmental reason to cut down these trees. Not only are the trees habitat to Owls and Hawks and Songbirds, but trees are essential to our air quality."

Although SSAS can provide comments on deficiencies in the Environmental Assessment of the HLSP Project, we need grass roots action to move our leaders. We need to let them know what HLSP means to us in this time of social distancing and to the many migratory and nesting birds that are about to fill the park. We need to tell them that the trees attract birds and birders and other nature lovers who will provide a much-needed boost to the local economy in the aftermath of COVID-19. Remind them of all the birders, photographers, and residents who travelled to HLSP last year to watch the heartwarming and almost heartbreaking drama of our nesting Great Horned Owls. Our owlets, who were injured when they fell out of their nest, were saved because people knew when to step in and when to step back -- people in harmony with nature.

So with thanks to John, we can follow his lead and write to or call Governor Cuomo, State Senator and Environmental and Conservation Committee Chair Todd Kaminsky, whose district includes HLSP, and other local officials. We can write letters to the editors of our local newspapers. The Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery cancelled a March 30 meeting with the project’s Citizens Advisory Committee and declined to hold the meeting online, but they stated that work on the HLSP Project continues. Ignoring public input and bulldozing their way forward predates COVID-19.

Our health and our families are our priorities, and our environment is essential to both. We’re in this together and we need to make our voices heard.