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The Suffolk County DDT litigation

Carol A. Yannacone, individually and on behalf of all the People of Suffolk County entitled to the full benefit, use and enjoyment of the Suffolk County Regional Ecosystem without damage or degradation from the continued application of the broad-spectrum, persistent, chemical biocide, DDT, v. H. Lee Dennison, et al., 55 Misc2d 468, 285 NYS2d 476 (Supreme Suffolk, 139050/1966).

Brief and Record Summary, The Suffolk County DDT Case*

The brief on equitable remedies

Suffolk County DDT litigation: trial transcript*

The Carmen’s River food web

Judge Stanislaw’s decision

* reproduced and distributed by the National Audubon Society (1967)

An excerpt from Chapter 9 of a yet unpublished book by Francis J. “Hank” Hilton, SJ, PhD, August 24, 2004

From Yaphank to Madison

Silent Spring stirred the nation’s minds, hearts, and wills. It also stirred a tidal wave of response. It did not, however, immediately quash DDT use. Government leaders would require ten more years of prodding to translate the nation’s new environmental mood into sustained environmental gains.

Carson’s kindred spirits, women and men who never knew her but shared her deepest affections, did much of the prodding that produced correctionist wins. New York’s Carol Meyer-Yannacone, Michigan’s “Coho Maniacs,” and Wisconsin’s Lorrie Stoeber-Otto played particularly important though unheralded roles. They sprang into energized correctionist action when they became aware of what DDT was doing to worlds they knew and loved. Their actions produced critically important correctionist outcomes.

Rescuing the Millpond

Carol Meyer-Yannacone started off in Brooklyn, around the block from a highly gifted deaf girl.i Carol’s protective instincts often put her between the hearing-impaired neighbor and the taunts of her neighborhood’s petty thugs. One particularly energized rescue mission left the assailants with observable injuries and their parents in a towering rage. When the deaf girl’s father appeared in the Meyer’s doorway, promising that he and his oversized relatives would protect Carol from the carefully planned retribution, her parents expressed their gratitude and decided to leave town. They opted for year-round, self-imposed exile at their humble summer residence on Long Island’s Southeast shore. The drawbacks of country life seemed trivial compared to the doom that the city promised to drop on their duty-bound daughter.

Twelve-year-old Carol took immediately to year-round country living. Like Rachel Carson, she was much younger than her next sibling and like Carson, she spent a great deal of time alone exploring her new community’s natural wonders. She learned the names and the habits of local reptiles, birds, fish, and land animals. She became familiar with plants of all sorts and she developed a keen interest in the entire ecosystem of the nearby millpond known as Upper Yaphank Lake.

The six-foot deep, 19-acre pond – situated 60 miles East of Manhattan, 35 miles Southeast of Teddy Roosevelt’s Sagamore Hill, and within a few miles of Robert Cushman Murphy’s Brookhaven birdwatching station – had been created in the nineteenth century to provide power for local woodworkers. Carol knew the lake better than most of its neighbors. She could map the shoreline from memory and could tell visiting fishermen exactly where the submerged stumps stood. She knew where the fish gathered in Autumn and she knew the Spring sequence in which its flowers bloomed. Her bottomless understanding of the shallow lake created in her an equally deep affection for it.

Carol Meyer-Yannacone’s affection for the lake matured with her. After marrying another refugee from Brooklyn, she took up residence near the lake, taught biology in a local high school and Sunday school at a nearby church. She worked for a period at nearby Brookhaven National Laboratory and wasted no time in introducing first her son and a decade later her daughter  to the lake’s minor freshwater miracles. Her work and her play continually brought her back to the water.

In the mid-1960s, an afternoon drive to the home of her mother in West Yaphank brought Yannacone to a horrifying view of the lake. As she passed along its short Southern edge, at a point where the road dips below the lake’s surface, her view became littered with the sight of dead fish, countless carcasses floating on the lake’s lethal waters. The vision nearly panicked her and sent her well-established protective impulses into high gear. She had to do something to rescue her beloved lake from whatever had dealt the deadly blow.
The search for explanations quickly pointed to the Suffolk County Mosquito Commission and its use and misuse of DDT. They had sprayed the pesticide along the lake’s mosquito-laden edges and had rinsed leftover DDT directly from tanker trucks into the lake. Information about the Mosquito Commission gave rise to her plan. In order to prevent additional poisoning, she had to obtain a ban on DDT.

Her outpouring of scientific infuriation, emotional outrage, and threats of major reductions in household services persuaded her lawyer husband Victor Yannacone to help her rescue the lake. They had to halt the Commission’s use of DDT. In order to obtain the ban, they would have to get the court to declare that the citizens of Suffolk County had a right to a clean, DDT-free environment.

Mr. And Mrs. Yannacone’s legal actions began on April 25, 1966. “Carol A. Yannacone, individually and on the behalf of all the people of the Country of Suffolk, Plaintiffs, against H. Lee Dennison, Suffolk County Executive; The Suffolk County Mosquito Control Commission, and the County of Suffolk, Defendants,” known as Yannacone vs. Dennison, began two years and ten days after Rachel Carson’s death. Four months after the start of the legal proceedings, on August 15, 1966, the court issued a temporary injunction prohibiting the use of DDT until the trial’s completion. The adventure’s first step had paid off handsomely. It also raised hopes for a final, permanent ban on DDT.

Yannacone v. Dennison

Objections to DDT were nothing new for the Suffolk County Mosquito Commission. In June 1964, the commission’s superintendent, Christian T. Williamson, was invited to respond to “a public outcry against the use” of DDT and other insecticides. Williamson tried to assuage concerns by telling the concerned citizens that he himself “had eaten DDT, had it sprayed on him, spilled on him, and had spent hours wet with it without ever having suffered ill effects.”ii Williamson’s testimony worked. Because DDT neither sickened nor killed him or other humans, it was deemed acceptable by the county supervisors who approved its continued use. Ongoing protests by area fishermen and farmers put Williamson and the Mosquito Commission on the defensive but did little to restrict DDT use.

The Yannacone’s then presented the commission with an altogether new sort of challenge. They set out not to prevent acute poisoning of humans, but to rescue the air, the land, the water, the birds, the fish, and the land animals. They set out to protect the area’s ecosystems and to protect every person’s right to a healthy environment.

State Supreme Court Judge Jack Stanislaw, a self-described “farmer at heart” who had a great personal dependence on DDT, heard the “complicated and controversial case” near the Eastern end of Long Island at Riverhead, New York. “On the second day of the trial, the judge leaned down from the bench in his flowing black robes and observed: ‘You know if Mr. Raccoon gets into your cornfields, he will really raise the devil.’” The next day’s New York Times reported that Justice Stanislaw, “a jurist and gentleman farmer . . . is sitting in judgement of a Suffolk house wife’s charge that DDT, the insecticide, is a danger to man’s environment and that its use by the county’s mosquito control officials should be permanently banned.”

The correctionist housewife and her attorney husband assembled a compelling case. Many of their most forceful witnesses came from the Brookhaven Town Natural Resources Committee, a group of scientists and concerned citizens that had formed a year earlier in an effort to protect, among other things, seals and swamps and to keep beach buggies from running over terns’ nests. One of their number, Charles Wurster, wrote an editorial that caught Victor Yannacone’s eye. Contact was made and a powerful alliance of scientists and lawyers was born. The group later evolved into the Environmental Defense Fund.

Six days of trial provided Justice Stanislaw with a first-rate education about Long Island’s ecosystems. Dennis Puleston of the Brookhaven group presented seven watercolors that showed how DDT poisoned the region’s creatures. A picture of crabs ingesting DDT-laden mussels caused Stanislaw to reply “So that’s why there are no more crabs in the Great South Bay.”

The education influenced the judge. In his decision, delivered a year after the trial closed, Stanislaw claimed that “it is reasonably apparent that DDT is capable of and actually has to some extent caused extraordinary damage to the resources of this county . . . [and] it is reasonably apparent then that the application of DDT in Suffolk County has and is continuing to have a demonstrable effect on local wildlife, reducing it slowly but surely.”vii

In the end, however, neither the watercolors, the scientific testimony, nor the sentimental references to the judge’s beloved Great South Bay convinced him that the law backed the correctionists. Stanislaw believed at the trial’s conclusion, as he had at its start, that the issue was not his to decide. The state legislature needed to make the call: “We have not been able to find a satisfactory foundation on which to base our interference with the acts complained of as being wholly unjustifiable or so manifestly and broadly injurious as to compel their cessation. Plaintiff’s remedy would seem to be better and more properly located with the policy making legislative unit as opposed to the policy executing body the focal point of this lawsuit. This complaint must be dismissed.”

Stanislaw had handed Yannacone and their correctionist allies something of a major legal defeat. The ruling itself did nothing to protect Upper Yaphank Lake or the rest of Long Island’s ecosystems from violent assault. Neither did the ruling suggest that individuals had the right to sue on the environment’s behalf.

Yannacone vs. Dennison also produced great gains for the correctionists. They had persuaded Stanislaw to focus on something other than the question of whether or not DDT produced acute poisoning in humans. Unlike Judge Bruchhasuen’s treatment of Robert Cushman Murphy’s complaint, the gentleman-farmer-judge handling the Yannacone’s case had considered the pesticide’s effects on wildlife and the environment. Moreover, on the day that Stanislaw announced his verdict, the Suffolk County Mosquito Commission announced that it would not use DDT for at least “a year or two” and was unlikely ever to use it again. The Suffolk County Board of Supervisors declared its official opposition to DDT.viii The housewife, her lawyer husband, and their sympathetic neighbors had produced a seminal ban on DDT. The duty-bound girl from Brooklyn had secured a two-part correctionist win – a temporary injunction and a permanent ban.