An angry crowd confronted Islip town leaders Tuesday night with questions about illegal dumping at a Brentwood park, the pace of the cleanup plan and why potentially toxic materials were permitted to build up for so long.
“They expect us to not be involved, to not care, and to go away,” said Joanne Mathews, a Brentwood environmental consultant who attended a town hall meeting at the Brentwood Recreation Center.
Mathews and about 100 others met with Islip officials for the first time Tuesday night to discuss the investigation into the illegal dumping of 32,000 tons of debris at Roberto Clemente Park. Some of the debris contained levels of cancer-causing asbestos as high as 44 percent, investigators said.
The meeting was the second event in Islip Tuesday where the issue of illegal dumping at the park and how it can be stopped was the main topic. Earlier, state Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman met outside the locked gates of Roberto Clemente Park with community activists and local elected officials.
Schneiderman, who held a previously scheduled community meeting later at Suffolk County Community College in Brentwood, told the park gathering that illegal dumping of the magnitude suspected on the other side of the locked gates “is like the environmental equivalent of a serial killer.”
He said he has been in touch with Suffolk District Attorney Thomas Spota and the state Department of Environmental Conservation as they continue their criminal probe at several sites in the Town of Islip and now one in the Town of Babylon.
He said his office would not “interfere” at the moment to avoid potential claims down the road of tampering with evidence, but would offer his office’s resources to the community as needed as the investigation unfolds.
“This is a big piece of illegal dumping — that’s not some accident, that’s not some rogue employees,” Schneiderman said.
At the Brentwood Community Center, Islip officials provided residents with a detailed timeline of Suffolk’s criminal investigation of the park dumping. They also discussed efforts to relocate the shuttered facility’s summer recreation programs.
But residents frequently shouted over officials and said they weren’t pleased with the information they received. “We want to know how this happened,” Mathews told Islip officials who attempted to read written questions that attendees had filled out. They were often shouted down by others in the audience.
At one point, a coalition of Latino activists accused the town of not providing a sufficient translator. Other protesters stood steps from the podium and held signs.
“Let’s face it: This is a bad situation,” said Islip Town Councilman Anthony Senft, the town board’s liaison to the parks department, over the din of shouting residents. “The park is closed — it’s closed for the summer — so let’s figure out what we can do for the future.”
Audience questions centered on the length of the expected park cleanup and what children would do in the meantime.
Town leaders said that a cleanup plan must be approved by the state DEC before Islip can hire a firm to do the work, suggesting that could be months before the park is reopened.
Children who used Roberto Clemente Park could be bused to other facilities or may have access to Brentwood schools fields and pools, officials said.
“We understand the trauma that has unfolded,” said new parks commissioner Tom Owens. Owens was appointed by the town board to replace Joseph Montuori the day he was forced to resign as the criminal probe began. Owens is also the town’s standing commissioner for public works.
Senft Tuesday night said the parks department never forwarded complaints about the illegal dumping to the town board.
“We assume that the parks commissioner is doing his job,” Senft said. “That’s why he’s no longer with us.”
But attendees continued to press the town on how top elected officials did not know something was wrong.
“Don’t tell me the buck stops with the commissioner,” said town resident Marvin Smith.