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Source: Newsday

New opposition to planned Old Westbury cemetery


Posted: February 25, 2009
Originally Published: February 24, 2009

A long-delayed plan for a cemetery at a 97-acre former horse farm in Old Westbury has drawn fresh opposition from environmental advocates who say the graveyard will pollute groundwater with embalming fluid and other toxins.

The Diocese of Rockville Centre bought the property more than a decade ago in hopes of turning it into an extension of Holy Rood Cemetery in Westbury, which it says is near capacity. The land, which once belonged to the polo-playing Hitchcock family, sits in one of Nassau's two special groundwater-protection areas - swaths of largely undeveloped land where water percolates down to recharge the deep aquifers that provide Long Island's drinking water.

Conservation groups who oppose the cemetery say they fear formaldehyde used to preserve bodies and heavy metals from caskets will leach into groundwater. Pollution from landscaping chemicals is also a concern.

"This is a critical area that supplies drinking water for thousands and thousands of people," said Adrienne Esposito of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, a Farmingdale advocacy group that picketed the diocese's office last week.

False statements?

Diocese spokesman Sean Dolan said the protesters were putting out "false statements to attempt to scare the public" and that preliminary groundwater tests at two other diocese cemeteries showed little impact. He said the diocese was fully cooperating with the Old Westbury village board, which is reviewing the project's likely environmental impacts.

Little research has been done in the United States on cemeteries' potential to pollute groundwater. Experts say conditions vary from site to site. Much depends on soil type, density of graves, and age of the burial ground - in the 19th century, arsenic was used to preserve bodies, a practice since stopped.

"It's an important issue that has not been solved," said Alison L. Spongberg, a geologist with the University of Toledo who studied water quality at four Ohio burial grounds. "A graveyard is nothing more than another type of landfill ... Of course they have to affect the groundwater if you put too many in one spot."

The proposed Queen of Peace cemetery includes office buildings, two chapels, crypts and a potential 42,755 grave sites on 70 acres. The remainder of the land is reserved for a nine-lot residential subdivision at the north end of the property.

More testing

Because it is difficult to apply research done in other areas to Long Island conditions, the village has asked the diocese to test groundwater at Holy Rood and Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Coram for contaminants such as nitrogen and heavy metals.

Though the full round of tests is not yet complete, no "significant formaldehyde impacts" have turned up yet, said the village's groundwater consultant, Thomas Cusack, vice president of Leggette, Brashears and Graham. A bigger concern, he said, is nitrogen from fertilizer application and possibly from the grave sites themselves.

Landscaping at Queen of Peace would minimize fertilizer and herbicide use, Dolan said, adding: "We have the highest regard for the environment. We don't want to pollute the groundwater, and we have proven that."

Last week's protest was the latest hitch in the diocese's lengthy quest to open a new Catholic cemetery in this exclusive village, whose zoning code does not permit them.

The diocese bought the land in 1995 for $5.6 million at a government auction after federal officials seized the land from horse trainers it said were associates of Colombo crime family boss Vic Orena. The parcel, which sits north of Jericho Turnpike between Hitchcock and Powells lanes, is zoned for residential use.

In 1996, the village denied the diocese's request for a change of zone, triggering a legal battle. A State Supreme Court judge ruled in the diocese's favor in 2000, saying it had the right to use the land as a religious cemetery.

After much wrangling with the village over details of the plan, the diocese applied for a special-use permit in 2005. A round of meetings and hearings followed. The village board will decide on the permit once a final environmental impact statement is ready.

"That's not happening anytime soon," said Kenneth Auerbach, an attorney for the village.