The intersection between Jericho Turnpike, Brush Hollow Road and Cantiague Rock Road is one of the most populated areas in the Jericho-Westbury area. A simple turn anywhere on this intersection can lead to the local BJ’s Wholesale Club, UA Westbury Stadium, Temple Beth Torah, Cantiague Elementary School and now, deadly industrial waste.
Investigations earlier this year by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) have found high levels trichloroethene (TCE) and tetrachloroethene (PCE) at 601 Cantiague Rock Rd. and nearby areas. In fact, according to a DEC representative, wastewater discharges to the ground and site drainage structures have been documented there since 1977. Furthermore, in 1998, 59 tons of PCE contaminated soil was excavated from an abandoned cesspool nearby and disposed off-site.
The staff and parents of Cantiague Elementary School, located only 0.2 miles away from the site, were highly concerned. At a PTA meeting earlier in the 2015-16 school year, superintendent Hank Grishman informed parents of the situation, addressed their concerns and informed them of upcoming DEC tests on the quality of the air, water and soil on school grounds. These tests came out to “normal levels.”
A former PTA mom at Cantiague, who chose not to be named, vividly remembered the eventful PTA meeting with Grishman.
“Mr. Hank Grishman is not only our superintendent,” said the PTA mom. “He’s also a grandfather of three kids who attend or will be attending the school. The contamination is not only professional, it’s also personal to him.”
The first substance, TCE, is commonly used as an industrial solvent. Under other trade names, the substance has been used as an anesthetic and an intense painkiller. The substance is highly carcinogenic (causes cancer), unstable, flammable and can depress the central nervous system. According to the DEC site database, its presence may have resulted from the artificial leather and plastics manufacturers located at the site, as well as the imprinted and embroidered sportswear manufacturers nearby.
The second substance, PCE, is widely used for dry-cleaning fabrics. Like TCE, it is also carcinogenic and produces central nervous system depression. According to the DEC site database, the high PCE levels may have resulted from industrial dry cleaners located in the area.
Both substances are capable of forming dense non-aqueous phase liquids (DNAPLs) in high concentrations, meaning that they are denser than soil and water and therefore collect at very deep levels (when they reach solid layers like bedrock). For this reason, these contaminants can be more difficult to clean up than oil spills. Also, the DEC states that DNAPLs can move easily in the ground, allowing them to release contaminants into other environmental media, a factor that must be considered as remedies are developed.
To combat this, the DEC announced a remediation plan in April 2016 that involves planting two air injection wells at the rear of the building at 601 Cantiague Rock Road, presently operated by Rubie’s Costume Company. With these wells, in-situ chemical oxidation (inserting chemicals called oxidants that break down harmful chemicals into harmless ones) and enhanced bioremediation (using micro-organisms to break down the chemicals even further) will be implemented. Rubie’s Costumes did not return requests for comment.
“Direct contact with TCE and PCE is unlikely because the area is mostly covered by pavement and buildings,” said a DEC representative. “Drinking the contaminated groundwater is also unlikely because residents are served by a separate, clean public water supply. The only danger is the chance of the chemicals leaking into soil air pockets and moving into indoor air supplies, but the DEC only warns of this threat in the on-site building (Rubie’s) and one off-site building. Based on existing data, there have been no exposures so far.”
This is not the first time such contamination has occurred in the Cantiague Rock Road area—in fact, a few years ago, similar contamination was found only 0.9 miles away from the site. At 70, 100 and 140 Cantiague Rock Road, the site of a former nuclear plant owned by Sylvania Electric Products from 1952 to 1966, the groundwater, soil and air were found to be similarly contaminated with TCE, PCE, nickel and even uranium. The DEC oversaw a voluntary cleanup by Verizon, the site’s current owners, from 2003 to 2005.
However, since then, the site has been the center of constant controversy, with former workers contracting rare cancers and filing lawsuits, local residents calling for further investigation and even the Star Foundation of East Hampton—a group concerned with nuclear contamination issues—calling for federal action, according to previously published reports.
The DEC has not made any link between the sites but the prevalence of such environmental hazards has many Long Islanders worried, including the former PTA mom.
“Naturally, we were all very alarmed,” she said. “Members of the board inquired about logistics and actions on how to tackle this enormously man-made blunder that is not only plaguing the Cantiague community but also neighboring Hicksville where it is creeping into. Visions of our children’s well-being at risk gripped at our hearts.”
Despite this local reaction, the DEC representative explains that the remediation process cannot begin until “all potentially responsible parties at Inactive Hazardous Waste Disposal Sites are first given the opportunity to pay for or perform the remediation.”
“The DEC cannot continue until one or more parties reaches an agreement with the DEC or, if this doesn’t happen, it receives funds from the state through the Superfund program instead,” explained the DEC representative. “Therefore, it is estimated that the remedial action may begin in about two years.”