The Unstoppable Sand Land

How a Hamptons mine, in defiance of New York’s top court, keeps trucking out precious piles of sand.

Colin Kinniburgh   ·   September 13, 2023
A sand pit among tall green grasses
Sand Land mine photographed in late August. | Colin Kinniburgh

In the hills of the Hamptons, next to one of the most expensive golf clubs in the country, sits a big pit. It spans an area of just over 30 acres — about six city blocks — and drops more than 100 feet deep in some parts, with heaps of sand scattered throughout. Heavy machinery scoops that sand out of the ground, sifts it, and loads it onto trucks for sale. It’s a mine called Sand Land, and it operates much as it has for more than half a century.

It isn’t supposed to. New York’s highest court ruled more than six months ago that Sand Land’s permits were invalid, and regulators told the company to stop mining. The town slapped a stop work order at the entrance. The state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) sent inspectors and issued violation notices. Sand Land kept digging.

That’s outraged neighbors, along with local environmental groups and lawmakers, who have spent the last decade fighting the mine in court over concerns that it threatens the area’s groundwater. Earlier this year, when the Court of Appeals ruled unanimously in their favor, the coalition thought the issue was finally settled. Instead, they say, Sand Land has kept mining in blatant violation of a court order. And they say the DEC has been hands off in enforcement, putting its mandate to promote New York mining over its environmental protection duties.

“I have been doing this work over 30 years,” said Adrienne Esposito, executive director of the Long Island-based Citizens Campaign for the Environment. “I have never seen such an example of government turning its back on illegal activity.”

Some might be inclined to dismiss the fight as a not-in-my-backyard battle in one of the ritziest parts of New York. But environmentalists say the case has broader implications, calling into question the state’s ability to crack down on polluters. As the mine gets deeper, it gets closer to the aquifer that supplies Long Island’s drinking water — and increases the risk that contaminants, including the leftover contents of an organic waste dump, could seep in.

“If people who have resources to challenge these outcomes of this permitting practice can’t get anywhere, imagine what other communities are facing,” said Bob DeLuca, president of Group for the East End, a local environmental organization. “The average person can’t just reach into their pocket and chase DEC for 10 years.”

Sand Land maintains that its activities have been above board. In May, it filed a new lawsuit against the DEC over the violation notices, arguing that it had another permit — untouched by the Court of Appeals ruling — that allowed it to continue operating. The case is pending, and Sand Land’s lawyer, Gregory Brown, said he would not comment on ongoing litigation.

The DEC, for its part, has rejected Sand Land’s latest legal counteroffensive as baseless. The agency “is committed to protecting the environment and continues to rigorously monitor activities” at the mine, a spokesperson told New York Focus. “DEC is continually coordinating with the Office of the Attorney General to hold Sand Land responsible for any violations of State law, regulation, and permit conditions.”

Golfers on an expansive green field under a blue-gray sky.
Sand Land sits next to one of the most expensive golf clubs in the country. | Colin Kinniburgh

In the early 1960s, Bridgehampton Sand & Gravel began digging sand out of a hill in the sleepy hamlet of Noyac to truck out across the South Fork of Long Island. The hole that became Sand Land is one of hundreds of sand and gravel mines across the state — and about 20 left on the island — supplying raw materials for construction and landscaping.

In the decades the mine has been operating, its surroundings have only gotten more upscale. Today, three golf clubs and a polo club sit within about a mile; the ultra high-end club next door also hosts an annual sports-car show, harkening back to its early days as a race track.

And then there’s Sand Land — what Esposito calls “the Grand Canyon of the South Fork, but not in a good way.” (The 30-acre pit is about average size for a New York sand and gravel mine.) Besides mining, Sand Land also operated for several years as a solid waste disposal site, taking wood and other landscaping waste and piling it in an area known as the “stump dump.”

“Fundamentally, the problem is, there is too much stuff to get rid of on Long Island, and sand is a valuable commodity,” said DeLuca. “So you sell the stuff out of the hole, and you have a hole to fill up with other stuff.”

It’s a straightforward — and lucrative — arrangement, but it comes with environmental risks. Sand Land’s mulch pile contaminated the groundwater, according to a 2018 investigation by the Suffolk County Health Department. The department found manganese levels almost 100 times higher, and iron levels 200 times higher, than drinking water standards, along with a host of other chemicals. (The pile also occasionally caught fire, neighbors say — a surprisingly common occurrence.)

Brown, Sand Land’s lawyer, notes that the DEC dismissed the study as “fatally flawed” — something DeLuca and others found ironic given the agency’s previous reliance on the county health department for similar reports.

“The last time I checked, the ‘E’ in DEC stands for environment and not for economics.”

—Assemblymember Fred Thiele

The reported water contamination particularly alarmed locals and environmentalists because the mine sits over an important aquifer, in an area designated for special groundwater protection. Unlike other parts of New York, Long Island gets its drinking water entirely from the aquifer running underneath it, one that is increasingly threatened by overuse, rising seas, and chemical contamination.

The aquifer is recharged by rain that filters through the ground; the deeper the ground, the better the filter, and Sand Land sits on one of the highest points on the east end. That should give the mine a lot of buffer — but the more sand it removes, the less protection there is from potential contaminants.

So when, in 2014, the mine applied for a permit to mine 40 feet deeper and across a few more acres, locals were not having it. Neighbors and environmental groups opposed the expansion, and the DEC rejected Sand Land’s permit. The company appealed, but lost again in 2018. The DEC said there was no sand left to legally mine and started the process to reclaim the site for future use.

They never finished. Instead, the DEC reversed course and worked out a secret deal that would give the company most of what it wanted: Sand Land could mine 40 feet deeper, and on three more acres, as long as it agreed to stop processing waste at the site. The parties announced the deal’s existence but did not release the text; when Sand Land’s opponents obtained the agreement through a public records request, it was entirely redacted.

Normally, expanding the mine would have required approval from the town — which banned new mines in the 1970s — but the DEC claimed it wasn’t approving an expansion at all, just a renewal of the existing permit.

The mine’s opponents did not take this well. They sued, kicking off a years-long court fight that wound its way all the way to the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest.

“The DEC simply has not been the protector of water quality, has not been the protector of the environment, but has literally broken the law to assist the industry here,” said Assemblymember Fred Thiele, who represents the area.

This February, the court ruled unanimously: The permits DEC had issued were invalid, and Sand Land would have to go back to the drawing board — and get the town’s approval — if it wanted to continue mining.

The town declined. In April, it sent a letter to the DEC reiterating that the mine had never gotten its approval to expand and posted a stop work order at Sand Land’s entrance. DEC inspectors showed up at the site three times that month, and ordered the mine to shut down or face steep fines.

But after a brief pause, Sand Land went back to work — and sued the state for trying to stop it. The mine claims that a 2020 modification, made to the permits the Court Appeals annulled, allows it to keep mining. The case is now stalled in an Albany court, awaiting action from a judge who sided with Sand Land in the case that ultimately went to the higher court.

Opponents say the suit is just the latest delay tactic in a legal saga that has already bought Sand Land years of lucrative mining. Based on aerial imaging of the site, the mine’s neighbors estimate the company has over those years mined more than 400,000 cubic yards of sand beyond the boundaries of its permits, including about 21,000 cubic yards between April — when the town posted its stop work order — and the end of July. That amounts to millions of dollars’ worth of sand.

Sand Land’s lawyer did not answer a question about the accuracy of the figures. In legal filings, the company maintains that it has always respected its permits and relevant court orders. It has denied excavating material from inside the mine since the Court of Appeals decision, though video evidence suggests otherwise.

Mining on September 1, 2023. | Christiansen Investigations

If you ask the mine’s opponents, Sand Land would never have gotten where it is today without the support of the DEC — the lead agency tasked with regulating it.

The long court record in the case shows numerous instances of DEC staff appearing to side with the mine. For instance, when the agency struck its backroom deal with the mine in 2019, it added the three-acre “stump dump” to the permitted mining area. But it claimed that this wasn’t an expansion — just the correction of a typo in the mine’s previous permits.

The Court of Appeals quashed this argument when it tossed out the mine’s permits, but the agency stood by the position when asked about it by New York Focus.

A few years earlier, emails show a DEC attorney appearing to press her supervisors for a reduced fine as the agency negotiated a consent order with Sand Land.

“I was not able to get approval for 50 payable and 50 suspended,” wrote the DEC’s Jennifer Maglienti to Sand Land’s lawyer. “The attached is settlement for 65k payable, with 35 suspended.”

The DEC spokesperson characterized the negotiations as a consent order, which the agency commonly uses to save time and money compared to other enforcement methods.

On paper, the department has two roles that are often at odds: promoting an “economically sound and stable mining industry,” and protecting the environment. Some say it has failed to strike the right balance.

“The last time I checked, the ‘E’ in DEC stands for environment and not for economics,” said Thiele. “The law that was written by the legislature attempts to balance these competing interests, and they put their finger on the scale in favor of industry.”

Thiele said the Sand Land case is not isolated. In nearby Riverhead, local officials are also fighting the DEC over its approval of a plan that would allow a mine to expand nearly 100 feet below groundwater level.

“In other areas, they do enforce and they are aggressive. With sand mining, they look the other way,” Esposito said of the DEC. “It’s as if there are two different agencies — one that’s protecting our environment, and one that’s allowing sand mining to destroy parts of the island.”

Construction equipment at the Sand Land pit.
"I have never seen such an example of government turning its back on illegal activity,” said Adrienne Esposito. | Colin Kinniburgh

Everyone in the Sand Land case agrees, at least in principle, that sand mining is necessary. Sand is among other things a crucial ingredient in concrete, which nearly all construction depends on. Mined sand can also be used to replenish beaches gnawed at by rising seas. And Long Island remains the state’s preeminent reserve of natural sand, a dwindling resource.

Sand Land’s opponents insist that they’re fighting one “bad actor,” in Thiele’s words, rather than mining in general, and that the industry as a whole would actually be better served by upholding the law. The company’s owner, John Tintle, also runs a second, larger mine about 20 miles away. That mine has been the site of two workplace deaths in the last decade — the only deaths at New York sand and gravel mines in the timeframe, according to the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration. In both cases, the agency cited the mine company for failing to take adequate precautions. (Brown said New York Focus’s characterizations “do not reflect” the public record but did not specify which part he disputed.)

While Sand Land’s opponents like to single it out, the mining industry stood by it in front of New York’s high court. The New York Construction Materials Association, a trade group, filed a lengthy amicus brief on Sand Land’s behalf in the Court of Appeals case, arguing that a ruling against the mine would threaten “the building blocks of the state’s infrastructure.”

Ronald Epstein, the association’s president, told New York Focus the group got involved in the case “to preserve the established constitutionally protected property rights that apply to the industry statewide,” but declined to comment on Sand Land’s activities since then, saying he was not familiar with the specifics. He said the group “does not support or defend any of the alleged compliance issues.”

Even some of the mine’s opponents have echoed concerns that closing the mine could mean losing a valuable resource.

“We’re going to have to get sand somewhere,” said Southampton town supervisor Jay Schneiderman. “If we’re not getting it locally sourced, then [that means] more trucking from distant locations, and that’s going to drive up the costs of construction. There’ll be other environmental impacts from the trucking and the diesel fumes and the traffic. So it’s not such a simple issue.”

Schneiderman maintains that Sand Land had mined beyond the limits of their prior permit, and would need a new permit to mine further, but declined to comment on whether the company was acting illegally in continuing to mine.

“If people who have resources to challenge these outcomes of this permitting practice can’t get anywhere, imagine what other communities are facing.”

—Bob DeLuca, Group for the East End

Some Sand Land opponents want the Attorney General to step in, and not just as DEC’s lawyer.

“Every agency has failed to get this company to comply with the law and the court rulings,” Esposito said. “And it’s not because the agencies can’t do that. It’s because they’ve chosen not to do that.”

A spokesperson for the Attorney General said the office had sought an injunction on behalf of the DEC to stop Sand Land from mining while the company’s latest lawsuit unfolds, and that the decision is now up to the judge.

As the case has dragged on, it’s gotten attention from more Long Island lawmakers, representing less affluent areas facing their own environmental woes.

Assemblymember Michaelle Solages, who represents part of Nassau County, said she sees the Sand Land battle as part of a larger environmental justice fight.

“Whether it’s in Elmont, or in Sag Harbor/Bridgehampton, at the end of the day, our aquifer is our only acceptable source of water here, and we need to do whatever is possible to protect that,” she said.

“Our greatest concern is number one, groundwater protection,” said Esposito. Second is “the precedent that this sets — that sand mining can do whatever they want, whenever they want, however they want, without any regulatory oversight. That’s scary.”

Colin Kinniburgh is a reporter at New York Focus, covering the state’s climate and environmental politics. Over a decade in media, he has worked in print, television, audio, and online news, and participated in fellowship programs at CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism and… more
Also filed in New York State

After the governor declined to answer questions, a New York Focus reporter was ejected from her event.

We asked 26 lawmakers who support the congestion pricing pause how they propose to fund transit upgrades. Most shrugged.

The state is blowing past key milestones on the way to its big emissions targets.

Also filed in Climate and Environment

The constant gridlock is a major drag on Manhattan’s businesses, and source of frustration for commuters. And it’s never been so bad.

As climate disasters threaten a home insurance crisis, a new state bill aims at the problem’s root.

Lawsuits had threatened to kill congestion pricing. Now, it might take a lawsuit to save it.