Editor’s note. As Hurricane Irene bears down on New York and the rest of the Eastern Seaboard, my thoughts are drawn to my family and friends who live there. I grew up on Long Island, and from 1982 until 1990 I was a commercial beachcleaner, leaving when I sold my business and relocated to Yelm, Washington. Even though the phone calls and emails are flying back and forth from LI to Eatonville, I sense something even more primal stirring in my relationship to the ocean and the sand. I feel the power of nature roaring tonight and I sit quietly, listening.
The following story on the medical waste wash-ups in 1988 was my first encounter with media deception and governmental cover-ups, and now, twenty-three years later I’m still holding a torch for justice. May its heat keep everyone warm tonight.
A Beachcleaner’s Story of the Medical Waste Wash-Ups in New York During the Summer of 1988
This is my account of the medical waste wash-ups along New York beaches in the summer of 1988; what I saw and what I heard. It was my first exposure to a major environmental catastrophe, and it was also my first encounter with governmental cover-up and media complicity. Based on field research told to me by low-level EPA Region II staff I have a good idea where the syringes came from, but it is information I have never seen released publicly nor investigated by the media. Further, due to many anomalous environmental tragedies unfolding at that time, such as the die-off of one-third of the Atlantic Bottlenose dolphin population, I also have strong suspicions that something else besides syringe wash-ups was occurring in the waters off New York and New Jersey.
I was not a major player in these dramas, but, as a commercial beachcleaner I was in a unique position to see a bigger picture at work. With no political or financial pressures upon me, I have been free to unravel parts of this mystery, or at least talk about them. I have no hard evidence, such as tape recorded testimony from field researchers, but I can tell you of my direct experiences and provide plausible speculations to bridge the gaps in my knowledge. The events I am about to tell you launched my career as a public speaker because the environmental collapse in New York waters in 1988 that the medical waste was a part of, radicalized me. This story is absolutely true as I know it.
In the summer of 1988 I was the owner and founder of Sandsifter Beachcleaning Company of Sea Cliff, New York, the biggest commercial beachcleaning service in the metropolitan New York area. My clients were many of the small and mid-sized beaches of Long Island and northern New Jersey. In addition, I was also the area representative for Cherrington Beachcleaner, the manufacturer of the beachcleaning machines that I used. Through my efforts to sell and service those machines I became acquainted with most of the mangers of the major beaches in the New York area.
In the last days of July, 1988, and on in to the first two weeks of August, the beaches of Long Island, New York were hit with an unprecedented wash-up of medical wastes and syringes. The approximately 800 collected syringes scattered along the coast drove people from the beaches, and they stayed away until the following year. I read in the newspapers that it cost the area economy $7 billion, and perhaps that loss is the whole reason for what happened to the investigation and its news coverage. To whit: the question of how the syringes washed-up in such numbers and who is responsible has never been answered adequately in my opinion. A plausible scenario has been created, but it has plenty of holes. Nor has anyone asked why it hasn’t happened again. The summer after, 1989, I never saw a syringe on the dozens of beaches I cleaned, nor did I hear of anyone finding one at the time.
First, allow me to describe the official story, which blamed the weather and sewer run-off. That perspective is now hard-wired into the web sites of all the environmental agencies and organizations concerned with beach debris. I say “no way”, but let’s start there because it sets the stage for a lot of initial investigations into the wash-ups, which does lead us into what might have happened, and based on current reports, continues on a reduced scale.
The official narrative says the summer of 1988 was an above-average hot one; day after day of humid 90 degree weather coming up from the Gulf of Mexico on steady southwest winds. This triggered daily thunderstorms through out the metropolitan NY area. Few people know that New York City routes much of its street storm water into its sewer system. It’s called a Combined Sewer Overflow system (CSO) and is typical of the civil engineering of older cities. New York’s system is built to handle the average daily flow of sewage plus a rain fall of one-quarter inch per hour. Any more water than that and the whole kit-and-caboodle of rain, toilet flushes, and street trash diverts past the sewage treatment plants and dumps directly into New York Harbor or western Long Island Sound. Only a bit of chlorine is sprinkled on top of the nasties before the big flush.
A thunderstorm usually dumps its rainfall faster than a quarter-inch an hour. More frequently it’s a quarter-inch in fifteen minutes, and during intense storms it could be as much as an inch of rain in twenty minutes. So, in the summer of 1988 the sewer system of New York was frequently overwhelmed by walls of street-sewer overflow. Enormous amounts of sewage entered New York waters. In the first of many acts of faulty leadership resulting in contaminants on our beaches, no public official told the city not to flush a toilet during a thunderstorm, thus attempting to limit the amout of sewage entering our maritime waters. It might have been a simple, albeit small and partial, solution to a big problem. At the least, such an effort would have pointed out the inadequacies of our cities, and given our political leadership some measure of public support to improve the system. To New York’s credit I must say that they have quietly begun excavating huge underground lakes in Queens and Brooklyn to catch the overflow before it gets to the harbor. But, even after billions of dollars have been spent, officials admit they’ll only catch 30%-50% of the total overflow. Worse, the mayor has yet to tell the people of New York City not to flush, shower, or do the laundry when it’s raining outside. Digging bigger holes and keeping the collective fingers crossed remains the order of the day.
The official story states that the syringes were coming into the waters of New York from the street storm sewers when these thunderstorms hit. Heroin addicts were blamed for throwing their syringes away in the streets and Mother Nature did the rest. But the fact that I never saw a syringe on a beach before or after 1988 defeats that speculation, and tells me that something special happened in 1988 besides the weather.
The source of the syringes, I think, is to be found in changes in the disposal of medical wastes from hospitals and doctors’ offices prior to the summer of 1988. Before becoming a beachcleaner I was a recreation therapist in the psychiatric unit of the Nassau County Medical Center in East Meadow and the Northport VA Medical Center, both onLong Island. Through the 1970’s and early 80’s I observed the Joint Commission on the Accreditation of Health Organizations becoming more aggressive on the identification, isolation, and disposal of hazardous medical waste. By the time I left hospital work in 1982 to clean beaches, virtually anything that had a little bit of human fluid, such as finger bandage, became hazardous medical waste. I know that my out-patient psychiatric day treatment center at the NCMC, which had no hazardous medical waste bags when I started in 1973 and put its rarely used syringes in a “sharps” box, had by 1980 several red bags of hazardous medical waste in daily use. Into these bags went alcohol wipes, swabs, gauze pads and anything else that carried bodily fluids. I am not decrying this level of caution; I am showing that the volume of hazardous medical waste needing disposal exploded.
At the public hearings and professional gatherings that followed the syringe wash-ups of 1988, colleagues I meet from the Federal Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) and their state counterparts, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYS DEC), told me that the only place in 1988 that all this medical waste could be disposed of legally was in a mass burn incinerator in South Carolina. They also told me that the cost of disposal charged by the carting firms was $2,000 per ton. The average carting truck can carry 20 tons of waste, so each truck was grossing $40,000 or so, per trip toSouth Carolina. From the waste I had seen generated in my hospitals, I knew that business was booming. Thus enters the garbage men and women of New York to this story.
The carting companies of NYC got into medical waste transport big-time. During the summer of 1988 it was often inferred or speculated, such as by TV news crews reporting what “the man in the street is saying” that the wash-ups were caused by unscrupulous carting companies looking to cut corners. One intrepid TV crew even got videos of a carting truck dumping its load into the East River from an unused pier near the old Brooklyn Navy Yard. No medical wastes were found as it was all construction rubble, and the guy dumping got arrested, but I don’t believe that’s what was happening to the medical wastes.
With the carting firm bosses making money hand-over-fist why would they want to kill the goose that was laying the golden egg of medical waste? To answer that question let me give you some more information, and then I’ll offer a speculation.
In the fall of 1988, a field researcher for the Federal EPA Region II (New York and New Jersey) told me at a professional gathering that her Brooklyn office had tracked the daily wind, tides and depositions of syringes throughout the greater NY area since the wash-ups had begun. She told me that the major concentration of syringes was not on Long Island as the media seemed to be reporting, but half were found on the Narrows-side beaches of Staten Island, a fact never revealed to the public, to my knowledge. This individual also told me that her field work indicated that the majority of the syringes on Staten Island came from one source, North Beach, and in fact all the Staten Island syringes seemed to have plumed out southward from that point since very few syringes were found north of that beach.
“Do you know what this means?” I asked her incredulously.
“Yes,” she replied. “The syringes were dumped in at one point, probably at North Beach.”
In 1988, North Beach was a derelict beach. Administered by the Parks Department of NYC, it was unused and blocked off by cyclone fences, many of which were twisted and derelict themselves.
“Have you told your bosses?” I asked.
“Yes. I passed on the information weeks ago.”
“Has anyone done anything about it? I haven’t heard anything like this on the news,” I continued, but she only smiled and shook her head from side-to-side, indicating, ‘no’.
“They’re covering it up?” I said, flabbergasted. Again she smiled, and shrugged.
Why a cover-up? Who at EPA could gain from that?, I thought.
Why?, indeed. Here’s my speculation: I think the bosses of the carting companies were clean on medical waste, but maybe somebody further down the food chain, let’s say a driver of a carting truck, a guy who was going to South Carolina every week and who knew the routine, was the culprit. He saw his boss make maybe $30,000 profit per truck wanted to get a little action for himself.
I believe an individual or two set up their own independent medical waste disposal business. They probably offered great disposal deals to low-income clinics and small veterinarian offices in New York. Their customers were probably medical operations that could use a break on the very pricey disposal of medical waste, and had no reason to suspect, nor the means to check, if everything was legal.
These disposal entrepreneurs probably collected a bag of syringes here and there through the early months of 1988, perhaps even 1987. I bet their original idea had been to toss a bag or two of their waste into the back of the trucks they were driving to South Carolina for their bosses. Perhaps it worked for awhile, but in the spring of 1988 they got caught in a squeeze. Scrutiny of hazardous medical waste intensified at that time due to increased anxiety about AIDS. Invoicing and careful monitoring of the transfer of that waste began at every point- hospital loading docks, truck transfer stations, and off-loadings in South Carolina. This must have prevented the bad guys from unloading their extras. They probably stored their waste in a garage or a self-lock storage shed for awhile, but by mid-summer 1988 their problem reached critical mass.
“Why not throw it in the harbor?” one of guys probably said. The tide will take it out, and it’ll sink, and no one will be the wiser. And if it floats, no one can trace it to us.”
“Yeah, good idea,” his buddy probably replied. “And I know a great place too, North Beach on Staten Island. We can go there late at night with a fishing pole and a couple six packs of beer, and if anybody asks- we’re just a couple of guys fishin’. But if the coast is clear we can throw a couple of bags into the water and in a couple of weeks we’ll be rid of this stuff.” I think that’s kind of how it went.
Thousands of syringes, I believe, entered the water at North Beach. The tides took them far afield as they floated supremely well. When they hit Long Island all hell broke loose.
A syringe on a swimming beach is one of the most frightening and insulting things that can wash up. People go to beaches for very powerful psychological reasons. It is a cleansing process to swim and to sun bathe, and in New York beaches are the primary place for city people to get in touch with nature. The medical waste triggered enormous disgust and the public and the media put a lot of heat of the politicians, who in turn put it on the EPA and DEC – and everybody suspected the carting industry.
With all the eyes of the world upon them, the carting dons must have gotten to work very quickly. They probably suspected that a few bozos in their operations were doing a little side business, and found those gonzos right away. I would imagine the bosses dealt with them in an expeditious manner, and I suspect any remaining bags of syringes left in offending garages and storage sheds were quickly emptied onto a legitimate waste truck and hauled to South Carolina. This probably happened near the end of the first week of August, 1988 or the beginning of the second week, because by the end of the third week of August syringes ceased appearing. I never saw another again.
By the end of August and the beginning of the Labor Day holiday weekend, there had been no medical waste wash ups for almost two weeks. The business and political sector turned the heat up on the environmental and media collective in an effort to get people back to the beach and salvage some of that $7 billion.
The last week of August, 1988 I attended a professional meeting of nearly one-thousand solid waste handlers, sewage treatment plant operators, beach managers, and EPA and DEC officials from Long Island to assess the situation.
The head honcho of EPA Region II got the meeting off in light-hearted fashion by saying that he needed help convincing his wife that it was safe to take the kids to Jones Beach and he wondered out-loud, “who wore in the pants in my family.” He received vociferous and good-natured applause from the mostly male audience.
He presented the problem as wholly one of public relations. He asked the assembled if they would agree to some kind of joint press release, stating that they were in agreement that the beaches were now safe. I protested rigorously, saying that we didn’t know the source of the waste (at the time I didn’t), nor were there any on-going water samplings for pathogens other than bacteria. “We don’t know if there are viruses, fungus, or algae, or their toxins, nor inorganic hazards such as poisons, let alone radiation out there.” I challenged. “How can we, in good conscious, tell the public that the beaches are safe?”
The crowd went dead quiet after I spoke, although the guy sitting next to me, a sewer plant operator from Great Neck, NY, patted me on the back when I sat down.
“You really got ’em, kid,” he whispered in my ear. “Nice job.”
Following that meeting I never saw or heard any press release on behalf of a professional environmental body claiming the waters were safe, nor did the people return to the beaches of New York that year. As for the beach, 1988 was a bust.
However, that winter I began speaking publicly, telling those who wanted to hear what I had heard from inside the EPA and DEC on the bits and pieces I knew of the wash-up story, and the related issues of safe swimming waters and contaminated seafood.
I had been told by NYS DEC officials that the criterion for “safe” waters for swimming is a bacterial count low enough so that only 15 people out of 1000 get sick from fecal contaminants. Not “too safe” for those unlucky 15, but okay for the other 985 swimmers.
At a NYS DEC workshop in 1989 I learned that all 123 species of seafood monitored and sold in New York State were contaminated with something. albeit often in minuscule amounts. The last report I saw from the NYS DEC said that the issue of telling the public the good news about seafood in New York is the job of the Department of Public Health, who in turn said it is environmental information and the province of the NYS DEC. This ping-pong game has been going on since 1980 that I know of, and as a result no public announcement has been made.
During the winter and into the following summer of 1989, I wondered about the wash-ups. Why was the EPA guy so sure the beaches were safe in August, 1988, even though his wife was just as scared as the rest of us? Did he know something we didn’t know and wasn’t telling?
How come the media didn’t keep on the story, or report to the depth equal to what I knew? I think all the major players knew the wash-up problem ended for good in the second week of August. I think they knew because I think the carting bosses told them. I suspect that the price of getting the whole story was that the bosses of the EPA and the DEC, plus the politicians and the media, had to keep quiet. Regardless of how it happened, I heard loud and clear their metaphorical collective sighs of relief the next season as I sat upon my beachcleaner, diesel roaring and hydraulics surging, sifting the glorious sands of my beloved New York beaches.
For over nine years, until the autumn of 1997, this how I believed the events of 1988 unfolded. One morning, in meditation, I had a cascade of insights that connected seemingly unrelated facts from the summer of 1988 to the syringe wash-ups. These insights were triggered by my observation of the events concerning the crash of TWA Flight 800. That tragedy manifested the same pattern of emotional horror, coupled with intense political and media attention, on an event occurring in the coastal waters of Long Island. Like the syringes, there remains an inadequate follow-up to the questions of why and how 800 went down, are 747’s safe, and how come no other 747’s have gone down in the same manner as 800.
The other events of 1988 that surged into my thoughts and were connected to the syringe wash-ups are: unprecedented dolphin die-offs, enormous and anomalous horse shoe crab die-offs in Long Island Sound, strange patterns of fish migration and feeding, and insupportable scientific conclusions given to the professional environmental community to explain these phenomena.
The upshot is that I now suspect not all of the syringes of 1988 were dumped in the waters off Staten Island. I now strongly believe there were two separate syringe episodes. The first played out as I have described above. But a second phase of wash-up existed if you look at the facts close enough. I now strongly wonder if this second episode copied the first one to intentionally, driving people from the water because something very dangerous was in or about the ocean off New York and New Jersey.
The “secondary” syringe wash-ups occurred during the second week of August, 1988, and the manner in which these latter syringes washed-up was different than the initial wash-ups of July and the first week of August.
The first syringes came ashore singly or in small clusters. The second batch came in large slicks, hundreds of feet in length, and was tracked off-shore by EPA boats. These slicks are curious because they were spotted off-shore from Long Island and not in New York Harbor. For the slicks to maintain any viscous integrity they would have had to travel down seven miles of New York Harbor (since officially they originated from the streets of NYC), make a left turn at Coney Island and move twenty miles in ocean waters to reach the spot off Jones Beach where the media film crews and the EPA joined them. That’s a mighty sticky slick to do all that without breaking up into little globs of oil and waste. Rather, it suggests the waste was dumped just off-shore of Long Island, and then tracked with cameras and fanfare, perhaps upon release.
Also, in late July, 1988 when the syringes started appearing on the beaches, an estimated 1,000 Atlantic Bottle-Nosed dolphins, or one-third of their population, died in New York-New Jersey waters. Dozens of carcasses washed ashore in southern New Jersey. But surprisingly, the ten or so dolphin carcasses ear-marked for autopsy were shipped off to a Toronto, Canada lab. A number of us in the environmental business questioned why the bodies were going out of country instead of to a marine research center here in the states, such as Woods Hole Institute in Massachusetts. We suspected cover-up, but our concerns were overwhelmed by the syringes and other events, particularly the immense hypoxia event that was going on in western Long Island Sound during the first part of August.
Hypoxia is the complete lack of oxygen. The summer of 1988 generated so much sewage in coastal waters that the algae in Long Island Sound bloomed to historic levels, sucking every molecule of oxygen out of the entire western twenty-two miles of Long Island Sound. Not one monitoring station in the western Sound registered a molecule of O2, either on the surface or at the bottom. From the Throggs Neck region in NYC east to Glen Cove on the north shore of Long Island, and north across the Sound to the Connecticut shore approximately 150 square miles of water became biologically dead.
“The western Sound was a wet, sterile desert,” I was told by officials with Connecticut Sea Grant, an agency attached to the Long Island Sound Study (LISS) of which I was on the Citizens’ Advisory Committee. But the truth is that I never saw any algae bloom, nor a fish kill, with the latter being the typical indicator of an on-going hypoxia event.
We in the LISS were told that the fin fish vacated the western Sound in time, relocating eastward to more aerated waters in the mid-Sound and avoiding a mass die-off. How the mid-Sound ecosystem accommodated the new arrivals I don’t know, and it seems at this point, well, fishy, for why would the fin fish act differently in a really big hypoxia event than they do in smaller ones where they typically die-off in small bays and inlets? The truth is I don’t know what happened to fin fish in the western Sound. The LISS announced in the spring of 1989 that fin fish stocks in the western Sound, depleted in 1988 had recovered, but from what, if anything?
Even though I didn’t see a fish kill I did see a tragedy, and that was the die-off of horse show crabs. In the second week of August, 1988 at Hempstead Harbor Beach in Port Washington, when I arrived at 6 am for my regularly scheduled clean-up I saw the tide line covered with approximately fifty dead horse shoe crabs. Local beach officials told me that the die-off had been going on for several days. All told there had been at least two hundred horse-shoe crabs washed up dead on that half-mile of beach that week.
This news stunned me and my crew because horse shoe crabs are the toughest critters on earth. They have survived all the cataclysmic events of the past 500 million years. They are the oldest unchanged evolutionary creatures on the planet. The fossil record shows horse shoe crabs twice as old as the oldest dinosaurs looking like the poor little critters in Port Washington. But we found a way to kill them in 1988.
Did hypoxia get them; did they suffocate in water that had no oxygen? Yet, horse shoe crabs are the one species that should be able to survive a hypoxia event because they’ve survived everything else this galaxy has thrown at them. I remember from my biology classes at Hofstra University that these creatures can live out of water for 30 days, even as they bake in the hot sun. And if Long Island Sound was out of O2 long enough to kill horse shoe crabs, then how come the beaches weren’t littered with tons of other dead creatures such as crabs, lobsters, and mollusks, assuming all the fin fish swam away? It seems like something was in the water and it singled out and killed horse shoe crabs unlike anything in history.
One last piece of unconnected information: my beachcleaning crews themselves. Crew members often fished during lay -overs on clean-ups in New Jersey or eastern Long Island. My crew chief that summer, a life-long fisherman, told me that something was very amiss that summer: the mackerel weren’t running in close to the Long Island beaches eating their favorite food, bluefish. The mackerel were 70 miles off shore, presumably chasing something else. My crew chief’s quote was, “Even the mackerel won’t eat the bluefish.”
We assumed the highly advertised elevated levels of PCB’s (polychlorinated biphenyl’s) in Long Island bluefish was scaring the mackerel off shore. Was it PCB’s? The WW II Westinghouse dump of PCB’s in the upper Hudson River was often blamed for PCB contamination in NY waters, but that was 40 years prior. PCB levels should have been consistent over that time. Was something new making the bluefish too toxic for the mackerel to eat? Did the change in mackerel have anything to do with bluefish at all? If not, what was driving the mackerel off shore, and is it a factor in this story?
I say it might have because of another event, TWA 800, the plane that crashed in the summer of 1996 in the waters I am talking about. During the investigation of TWA 800 I learned there is a military test zone in waters due south of Long Island and east of New Jersey. Did some biological warfare test go amok in 1988? Did we hunt for Red October? Or for X-Files fans, did we fight a war with underwater extra-terrestrials in the ocean off New York using biochemical weapons?
Or did terrorists try something on us? Could something have been in the New York City sewage? That would tie in the Long Island Sound horse shoe crabs and the events in the open ocean, since in 1988 New York City still was dumping its treated sewer sludge 100 miles off-shore of Montauk, Long Island.
Could it have been something so big and so spooky that the government didn’t want anyone to know about it and would do anything to keep it contained and out of the public eye, like dumping syringes and oily wastes to chase people out of the water?
Regardless of what happened, political insiders seemed to have known the details. How else can one explain the lack of significant investigations of all the catastrophes: dead dolphins, hypoxia in Long Island Sound, and the syringes? The following summer of 1989 was business as usual. Why? It seems our leaders knew that whatever had happened in the summer of 1988 wasn’t going to happen again in 1989, or any other time. How could they be so certain unless it was a man-made event that they ultimately controlled? How come the media didn’t follow-up unless they were in the know, too? Or are they just too inert?
I don’t know if this is why any of the catastrophes happened. I’m just trying to make the pieces fit.
In the fall of 2005 I sent the above essay to Julie Snyder, a producer for This American Life, a popular radio show carried over my local NPR station, KPLU in Tacoma, Washington.
I had left NY and beachcleaning in the winter of 1990 to relocate to Yelm, Washington and study full-time with Ramtha, the Enlightened One at his School of Enlightenment. So, when I submitted my story I thought I had left beachcleaning behind, and only hoped my quirky, interesting memoir would make me a few bucks and give me an opportunity to hear myself on the radio.
In late 2005, Ms. Snyder contacted me to say she was interested in discussing my syringe story. In the course of several email exchanges, she indicated that she felt the story as written was too old and needed a fresh angle, such as getting a confession from one of the officials involved in the cover-up. She asked if I would be able to develop a more investigative piece.
“Sure,” I replied. “But it’s going to take a lot of digging. How much money do you have?”
Ms. Snyder declined to discuss finances, and ultimately passed on the story; but it got me thinking about NY beaches again.
I called all by old buddies, clients, and contacts. With those I could find, we reminisced and they brought me up-to-date on the new players and circumstances. I learned that commercial beachcleaning is no longer a viable business in New York, especially on Long Island, because most of my old customers have bought their own beachcleaning equipment, presumably inspired by my fantastic service.
Everyone told me the beaches of NY were much cleaner than in 1988, although everybody had seen a syringe or two since.
But something was different. Something was not quite right. My chats with fellow beachcleaners were great; but my forays into officialdom were different. An inner voice said: The game’s afoot Watson.
First off, every official or beach manager still at their job was afraid to talk openly with me. Shy, now that I’m a reporter? I wondered. “Everything’s off the record,” I assured them.
Still, the anxiety never left, and at times roared back. One individual begged me “not to hurt” them by revealing who they were, where they worked, or anything about our conversation.
Maybe this is just how it goes with investigative reporting, I pondered.
I perused the Internet. There, I smelled the cover-up, strong.
I found my first piece of evidence while surfing through documents from the EPA. Surprisingly, the syringe story was still fresh on their web site, where they offered lots of historical detail on the events of 1988, and how the problem is still going on but now adequately contained. Other web sites, such as the Long Island Sound Study and other environmental agencies, showed the same thing. Every organization had a page or two, or more dealing with the syringes of 1988 and a brief update.
But what caught my eye, or ear, was that much of it sounded the same. Did one person write all these reports and spread them around? Or do all bureaucrats sound alike?
I contacted the US EPA Region II. Their Public Affairs Officer, Elias Rodriguez, kindly responded by phone to my home in Washington state.
He re-told me an encapsulated version of the diabetic/toilet scenario, and promised to send me pertinent documents, which he did, including a 67-page masterpiece. From that treatise I learned about current efforts to contain floatables in NY-NJ waters, a very heady undertaking that includes a flotilla of skimmer boats operated by several agencies. One, The Army Corps of Engineers, (ACE,) has collected something like five-hundred thousand tons of debris since late 1988 when the skimmer fleet splashed into action. (I may be off a spot or two in my decimal point regarding the tonnage of ACE’s collection. Regardless, they’ve scooped up a lot of stuff, and much of it dangerous such as floating logs and pilings that can wreck vessels, especially at night.)
The best thing I found in the EPA document, though, was a weather report. According to the EPA, the amount of rain captured in official gauges at Newark Airport over the ten years prior to 1988, and all subsequent years, indicated the summer of 1988 was very average at 17.29 inches – in fact, a little under the average of 20.86 inches. So, there goes the Royal Flush Theory of Syringe Deposition in 1988. (Thank you, Dear US Taxpayer, for funding this information. I appreciate it; I’m also glad there was no money in the budget, apparently, for fact checking.)
The next piece of the puzzle came via another phone call. This one was from Paul Molinari, and it really caught my attention because he was summoned from his recent EPA retirement and he told me that he had been asked to make the call.
Mr. Molinari was tapped because he is the former Chair of the Interagency Task Force formed in 1988 to resolve the syringe issue. Paul was chatty, but insufferably bureaucratic. Worse, he was smart, savvy and very quick – a lion in a doleful sheep’s clothing. He had a ready plausible answer to every question I broached, and I doubt he ever broke a sweat.
“I understand that about eight-hundred syringes washed-up on Long Island beaches in 1988,” I started.
“That sounds about right,” he replied.
“My recall is that the syringes came ashore in two different kinds of wash-ups. One form was in small groups, onesies and twosies. The other was part of large, greasy slicks.”
“Yes, that’s what we discovered.”
“Hard to say. We don’t fully understand the hydraulics of how the harbor flushes itself, or the effects of the tide, water movements, and wind. There’s a lot to factor in. We did find that the large deposits followed full moons and new moons, so we suspected that tidal action was very important in gathering the slicks together and moving them outside the harbor area.”
“I met a Federal worker at a professional gathering in late 1988 or early 1989 who said she was part of an EPA tacking team. Was there a tracking team, and what did it find?”
“Yes, many agencies formed their own tracking and recovery teams to remove the syringes from the beaches and waterways.”
“This woman told me her team found the majority of syringes, over a thousand, on the shores of Staten Island. In fact, she said they all plumed-out from North Beach.”
“Yes, many syringes were found in the inner harbor.”
“Were they dumped?”
“The skimmer boats collected, and are still collecting, syringes at the mouths of the CSOs, so our conclusion was that the CSOs were a major source of syringes.”
On and on we went. I never found a crack in his armor. At the finish of our lengthy phone call, Paul gave me the names of several EPA officials who are part of the current EPA and ACE floatable surveillance teams.
I thanked him, and added his referrals to the list of other referred EPA officials involved with floatables these days, none of whom have returned any of my email inquiries. Not even the friendly Elias at Public Affairs calls me any more, not after I sent him a copy of the first two chapters and asked him for his opinion.
But the plot thickened considerably with another phone call. This time I placed it, and struck pay dirt with Cindy Zipf, Director of Clean Ocean Action, of Sandy Hook, New Jersey. Within seconds I discovered I only knew a small part of the story.
“Syringes and medical waste first started washing up in New Jersey in 1987,” Cindy told me. “It was horrible. Starting in ’87 and going into the summer of ‘88, we had thousands of syringes wash up, and even body parts. They were part of very nasty grease slicks. Plus, we had over 800 beach closing in 1988 due to raw sewage. Occasional syringes still wash-up, but something very suspicious occurred in the 80’s. The scale of what happened then was too large to be systemic.”
“Are you’re still getting syringes in Jersey?” I asked.
“Yes, wait a second and I’ll get my reports…..we do, the Clean Ocean Action does with its volunteers, a “Beach Sweep” cleanup every spring and fall. One weekend in April or May, and another in September or October. Our people collect debris from 127 miles of New Jersey shoreline. That’s not every inch of Jersey’s beaches, but it’s a significant portion.”
Cindy continued: “We keep records of over 70 different categories of debris, and syringes are one of those separate categories. In 2004, the last year I have records that I can reach without digging around in the piles on my desk, we found 209 syringes in the spring Beach Sweep and 119 in the fall. That’s a total of 328 syringes.”
“Yikes, Cindy!” I shouted. “That’s almost half the number that shut down the beaches in 1988. I had no idea things were this bad. Everybody is telling me that the problem is over, that only a few syringes wash up. But you found three-hundred in just two clean-ups.
“Over 127 miles of beaches,” Cindy re-stated.
“Yeah, but still, three-hundred is a lot, and a lot more than anyone is talking about. Plus, I read on Clean Ocean Action’s web site that a seven mile slick came in with nine syringes in 2003, hitting Sea Bright. Where can a seven mile slick come from? It can’t be coming down from New York Harbor.”
“It is hard to understand how a slick that big could float that far.”
“Could it be from an off-shore dumping? Or from the military test zone?
“Who knows? It could be from the waste the military dumped off-shore during WWII. The Baltimore Sun just did a report on barrels of toxic wastes and poisons getting caught in the nets of commercial fishermen. The Sun reported that some fishermen found barrels of mustard gas just a couple of weeks ago.”
“This story just gets bigger, and worse,” I said.
“Maybe those 55 gallon drums are what killed the dolphins back in ’88,” she added. “Something definitely bad happened back in the ‘80s.”
“You know about the dolphins?” I asked. “You’re the first person, besides me, to consider a connection between the syringes in ’88 and the dolphin die-off.”
“Maybe some dolphins found a few of those barrels back then and played around with them. Dolphins like to nose things around, and maybe they opened one or two barrels, such as the ones which had mustard gas, because the symptoms for mustard gas contamination are similar to what was reported in 1988, the skin lesions and wholesale peeling away of the dolphins’ skin.”
Continuing, Cindy added: “But things are better, Bruce, really. The events of 1987 and ’88 helped spur the enactment of fourteen pieces of federal and state legislation dealing with floatables, and the health of the ocean and beaches. We’re even collecting fewer tampon applicators. I’ve always considered condoms and tampon applicators to be indicators of raw sewage, and in 2004 we only collected 1,800 applicators during the Beach Sweeps. Back in the bad ol’ days we used to get thousands and thousands.”
“I remember back in my day folks called them ‘Jersey Whistles’ and I found them in any color you wanted – pink, blue, green, or aquamarine.”
“I remember “Jersey Whistles” too, but those days are gone, thank God.”
“Thanks, Cindy. I don’t know where this story is going, but I’ll probably be calling you again. Probably soon.”
“Any time, my friend.”
My conversation with Cindy confirmed that the official story, although not 100% bogus, certainly diverted one’s eye away from the real sources of syringes and other potent dangers near NY’s ocean beaches.
Continuing my new found career as an investigative reporter, I endeavored to see what my intrepid newspaper colleagues in 1988 had discovered.
I entered Newsday’s web page but couldn’t open their archives. I went to the New York Times, instead.
First, I learned that my perceptions and recall of 1988 were faulty. The first syringes did not hit LI beaches on July 29th as I had remembered, but July 3rd. I must have been sleeping; the peak of my season had just finished on the Friday of the holiday weekend. From May – July 1, when I’m getting everybody ready for the season, is the real beachcleaning time.
According to the Times’, the first syringes came in at Lido Beach and Nassau Beach. The next day they hit Jones Beach a little further east, resulting in lifeguards were whistling everyone out of the water on the biggest beach holiday weekend in New York. Soon, other beaches shut down. Within days people avoided all beaches, and they stayed vacant until the following summer.
On July 25, 1988, the New York Times printed a hard-hitting piece on plausible sources of the syringes. Writers Ralph Blumenthal, Philip Gutis and Sam Howe Verhovek reported that local agencies suspected illegal dumping.
“We would love to pin it on somebody,” William J. Muszynski, deputy regional administrator of the Federal EPA, was quoted in the Times.
“’We are looking at some medical facilities and fly-by-night clinics that have presented problems in the past,” Marlene Gold’ was quoted, ‘the (NYC) Sanitation Department’s Deputy Commissioner for Legal Affairs, who supervises an environmental detective unit of 13 agents and five lawyer involved in the investigations.’
The Times also confirmed my number of 2,000 syringes overall, with the majority found on Staten Island beaches.
Further, the Times really dug deep and found possible sources and motives, namely, small clinics or doctors who either were running illegal medical operations, or those who had had their Medicaid reimbursements stopped due to suspected fraud. Hearing that, I wonder if the syringes could have been pay-back, an extortion to have the Medicaid payments resumed.
Nevertheless, the Times wrote:
“But while Mr. Jorling, (NYS Commissioner of DEC), expressed doubt that any single ‘smoking gun’ source existed, the city’s Sanitation Commissioner Brendan Sexton was more optimistic that at least one major culprit could be found.
That the glass vials turned up unbroken and with blood residue often intact suggested, Mr. Sexton said, that they did not wash through the sewer system, as others have suggested, but were instead dumped directly in the water.
In addition, he said, no vials were found packaged in the plastic bags used by the trash haulers, suggesting that the vials that were found had been disposed of directly by the lab or clinic.
‘It was clearly an act of will,’ Mr. Sexton said of the dumping of some of the vials and needles found in the most profusion onStaten Island.
Investigators said they were studying some of the 22 labs in New York State that were suspended from Medicaid reimbursement this month after an undercover investigation by the state’s Medicaid Fraud Control Unit and Department of Social Services.
According to one official memo on the Medicaid inquiry, the labs set up mobile blood-donating centers, typically paying drug addicts $5 to $10 for blood. The samples were taken to the labs, where expensive tests were performed, doctors’ names fabricated, and bills submitted for Medicaid reimbursement for $250.
The memo concluded, ‘There have may be a link between the recent medical washup incidents and the fact that the blood collected by the unlicensed facilities are of no value to the labs as of two weeks ago.”
But what happened next? I can’t find any records of resolution. In fact, Times articles on the wash-ups gets pretty soft thereafter.
In addition, Blumenthal, Gutis and Howe Verhovek seemed to have been replaced with another crew of reporters. The original, penetrating investigative writing was replaced with fluff – long paragraphs filled with press-release fodder from the public affairs staff of the EPA and the Nassau County Department of Health. The “revisionist” news proclaimed that most of the public’s worries were unfounded and that much of the suspected syringes were actually plastic squeeze-pop wrappers.
Extortion? Is that what happened next? Did illegal and unethical medical facilities play hard-ball with the New York State Attorney General to get Medicaid reimbursement re-instated? Were the bad guys bought off if they promised to be good boys and girls for the rest of the summer? Was avoiding a lengthy trial and expensive investigation just too cost-effective for the government to pass up? How far down this rabbit hole lies the truth?
If the State caved and gave the bad guys their reimbursement, did all the other slime balls in New York then realize they could get anything they wanted – fixing a parking ticket, getting a sleazy building permit or extra cigarettes delivered to Uncle Charlie in Attica – if they dumped a few syringes in the water?
Somebody gave it a go, apparently, because the Times reported in 1991 that 500 syringes washed-up at Jacob Riis Park in Queens. The beach was closed for a day, but reopened because it was such an obvious case of dumping and not an indicator of sewage or a medical waste problem.
If the prosecutors colluded with the illegal labs, were they forever afterwards beholden? Is that what makes the EPA, ACE, and perhaps the media, Tellers of the Tale of the Crazy Diabetics? Are they now Keepers of the Secret?
Is that why I couldn’t find any more Times articles on the investigations by the Department of Sanitation? Were they ever written?
Is that why we have the myth of syringe-laden CSOs?
Is that why we continue to have syringes on the beaches?
Is that why no one at the EPA has the time to talk to me about illegal dumping?
But, are we really getting syringes on the beaches? Couldn’t Clean Ocean Action be just another bunch of left-wing do-gooders who always see boogey men from corporate America screwing up the planet?
Nah. We’re still getting syringes because my cousin Gail told me so, and just this past Christmas.
During the summer my cuz works at the souvenir shop at Fire Island Lighthouse. She told me that a couple of years ago a father walked into the shop with a large zip-lock bag filled with syringes.
“My kid just found them down at the beach. What should I do?” he asked Gail.
Robert Moses State Park is a mile westward from the Fire Island Light. It’s not just my friend Cindy and her intrepid do-gooders in Jersey finding syringes. It’s fathers with daughters.
It wasn’t a rainy day and an overflowing sewer plant. It wasn’t a nut-case diabetic. It wasn’t a junkie in the dunes. It was a bag of syringes on a beach!
But, you ask, “Why haven’t I found a syringe on my beach?”
Maybe you haven’t because somebody else might have gotten there first and snatched it.
I say that because I remember a special meeting at Jones Beach in the summer of 1988. Until writing these words, I had forgotten about this brief interaction:
This meeting was held a few days after the big gathering at Nassau Beach that I’ve described at the beginning of this treatise, and many of the same players were at this second meeting.
However, I had not been invited to this second meeting. Ironically, I heard about it while cleaning a beach, when my customer asked me if I was going to the special syringe meeting later that day at Jones Beach.
Leaving my beachcleaner with an operator, I jumped in my truck to join the festivities in progress at a conference room in the administrative center at Jones. Several panel members on the dais looked suddenly ill when I entered the room.
The meeting had been called to create a phone-tree communication system between beach officials and managers on Long Island. The purpose was to quickly alert each other of syringes washing-up, and to inform the public. On the surface the plan seemed a worthy act of public health.
However, I now change my mind because of something else that happened. Leaving the phone-tree meeting, I walked alongside a beach club owner who was a customer of my service. When safely out of public ear shot, he leaned his head toward mine and whispered,
“Why don’t they just walk the beach at dawn, pick up the syringes and throw them away? If they don’t tell anyone, no one will know -and all this bullshit will go away.”
In many ways it has. An illegal act to cure an illegal act?
Cindy Zipf, my hero in the trenches for twenty years, gets the last word here.
“I’ve suspected for a long time that beach officials are picking up the syringes and not telling anyone. That’s why we see so many on our Beach Sweeps. They’re out there.”
Further: “Every summer, I get a few calls from beach-goers who have found a syringe on the beach. They’re concerned and ask me what to do. But, by the time someone from Clear Ocean Action can get down to their beach, the syringe is gone and down at the administration building nobody knows anything about it. The syringe just gets disappeared.”
Well, Cindy almost gets the last word, because I need to ask: So, what happened in 1988?
My best guess is that sometime around 1987, criminals in NY found a way to leverage their legal difficulties by dumping syringes and medical waste into local waters. Public outcry and the closing of beaches was their way to circumvent any legal pressures the government was putting on them. It is certainly easy to imagine that illegal Medicare billing from labs and clinics, entities that would have ready access to syringes, blood and even body parts, are the most plausible culprits.
But maybe now, any Mafia Don, or even any two-bit wise-guy, knows that when he gets pinched he might get a reprieve if he throws a bag or two of syringes onto a beach on a hot summer day. It could be for a reason as simple as trying to beat a speeding ticket. But, it could be as big as hundreds of millions of dollars in Medicare fraud. I simply don’t know.
But if the law caved in once, and it may have made sense to do so back in 1987 and 1988 when all hell was breaking loose, now the government is part of the cover-up. If, back in ‘88 they broke the law in an effort to make a deal with real slimy people, they now have to cover everybody’s asses. But guys like me and Cindy Zipf, and all the moms and dads walking the beaches with their kids and who are finding syringes – haunt them. No one in authority, not the US EPA, NYC EPA, NYS DEC, not even beach managers, can tell the truth, maybe not even the New York Times.
Looking for that truth, in 2007 I contacted Ralph Blumenthal, one of the original hard-hitting reporters for the Times, asking for any insights on what has unfolded on this story. I was hoping he would tell me the circumstances of how he got pulled off the story.
However, Ralph is now the Houston Bureau chief for the Times, and in an email to me he declared that has “no recollection of the events, apart from whatever is in the stories.”
I have a hard time accepting the possibility that Ralph no longer remembers the summer when nobody went swimmin’ in New York.
Further, Philip Gutis is now the communications director for the National Resources Defense Council. I’ve phoned and emailed him, and told clerical staff the nature of my calls, but I still haven’t heard back from Phil.
As for Sam Howe Verhovek, I haven’t been able to find him. He, too, worked the Houston desk for the Times, I understand, and then he left for the LA Times and assignments in Asia. After that, nada.
How come I get zip from these guys? I don’t want to impugn their reputations, but the feeling that a cover-up is involved just keeps growing for me.
So, if I’m going to continue to dance to this song of conspiracy, it makes sense to consider that once the lie got started it had to be maintained. The smokescreen about diabetics flushing syringes down the toilets sounds lame, but it’s a story that has held together for over twenty years.
But when will the truth crack open into daylight? When will one insider say “enough is enough?” How long will the prophetic and hungry-for-the-truth Julie Snyder at This American Life have to wait for an anguished death-bed confession?
When will a simple beachcleaner be able to write the last word on this story?
When can we trust our government?
When will be able to walk the beaches of New York again without fear?
What a mess.
It’s all so, untidy.
© 1997, 2005, and 2011 Bruce A. Smith