Heavy lifting at bays cleanup

Mulé asks volunteers to push for countywide plastic-bag tax


Kaitlyn Gonsalves stretched her net as far she could into Baldwin Bay, trying to reach a plastic bag floating on the water. Getting to it, however, was only half the battle. “It’s heavy,” Gonsalves said. “It’s filled with water.” Her father, George, reached out to help her, and they put the bag into a garbage bag.

Similar scenarios played out several times during an hour-long boat ride along the canals of Baldwin and Freeport as part of an environmental cleanup hosted by Sonny’s Canal House and the nonprofit Operation SPLASH (Stop Polluting Littering and Save Harbors) on Sunday. The Gonsalves family and dozens of other volunteers removed all sorts of garbage from the water, but Nassau County Legislator Debra Mulé, a Democrat from Freeport who took part in the cleanup, was focused on the plastic bags, saying that it’s imperative to reduce their use so they don’t end up in the bays.

Mulé, who was elected last November, recently proposed legislation that would impose a 5 cent fee for each bag given out at supermarkets and shops. She urged the SPLASH volunteers to lobby Republicans in the Legislature to pass the measure into law. “Please, write letters to Rich Nicolello, the presiding officer, [and] make phone calls,” she told the crowd. “The more pressure we put on, the better it’s going to be. I think we’re making some headway, but it’s going to take everybody.”

Mulé said she believed the public was behind her bill, which has the support of County Executive Laura Curran, a Democrat from Baldwin. “We need to let everybody, the people and the Legislature, know that this is something that’s important, that this is something that works, and that it’s something the people want,” she said. “We know it works. It doesn’t make sense to me that you wouldn’t go forward with it.”

Nicolello, a New Hyde Park Republican, said in May that he was hesitant to put “another burden on our taxpayers.”

The proposed law would not impose fees on bags used to wrap meat, newspapers or dry-cleaning, and people using the state Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or the state Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children would also be exempt.

Suffolk County enacted a fee on plastic bags earlier this year. “Within a month,” Mulr said, “people got used to it.”

Suffolk Legislator William Spencer, a Democrat from Centerport who sponsored the bill, said in May that the number of residents who used reusable bags increased from 5 to 50 percent. Long Beach enacted a similar fee in 2016, and New York City passed a law to do so in 2017, but state lawmakers later blocked that legislation by passing their own measure prohibiting any city with a population of more than 1 million from instituting a plastic-bag fee.

Officials of Sanitary District No. 2, which includes Baldwin, support Nassau’s plastic-bag bill, according to Commissioner John Cools. “We always support stuff like that. It’s just common sense,” Cools said. “We’ve got to stop using plastic.”

Sunday’s cleanup was the second annual event hosted by Sonny’s, whose manager, Gareth Moore, said the effort started last year, in the interest of keeping the water as clean as possible. “We’re on the water, and people will boat here sometimes,” Moore said. “We don’t want people coming down here and getting their motors crammed up with garbage or the water looking unsightly.”

The Molloy College rugby team volunteered for the cleanup. Moore played rugby for the Rockville Centre college, and when he needed volunteers, he turned to his former team. “I leaned on these guys, and they were very generous,” he said.

Operation SPLASH provided the boats to transport the cleanup crews. Sanitary District No. 2 offered garbage bags and a truck to haul away the trash that was collected.

Moore said he hoped to expand the event next year, and possibly do it twice a year in the future. “That way, we’re really doing our part to keep [the bays] clean year-round,” he said.

Baldwinite Bill Blazey, a friend of Moore’s, skippered the boat on which the Gonsalves family volunteered. They removed chunks of wood, an unopened beer can, part of a gutter, a cabbage head and more.

“I live on the water,” Blazey said. “I fish, I go clamming, so keeping it clean is very important to me. You do little things, and it makes a big difference.”

In addition to the boat crews, volunteers scattered across nearby parks to collect litter before it reached nearby storm drains, which let out in the bays. Freeporter Melanie Meyer said she found plastic bottle caps, straws, a syringe and a used condom at Baldwin’s Milburn Pond Park.

“It was beautiful at first, until you got to the water’s edge” of the pond, she said. “It’s tons and tons of plastic. It’s unbelievable.”