Amidst Water Contamination, Assuring Words

This is one of a pair of monitoring wells at the corner of Susan Court and Lawrence Road in Seaford, adjacent to the intersection of Route 135 and the Southern State Parkway. They have registered 21 parts per billion of the main contaminant of the Bethpage Plume, the highest level so far south. (Photo by Frank Rizzo)

There is one bit of knowledge that anyone who lives in the area served by the Magothy Aquifer (that is, virtually everyone on Long Island) needs to know. The groundwater may be polluted in many places; the tap water, thanks to the efforts of water districts, is not.
Therefore, the reassuring answer was, “Your water is safe to drink.”

This was the overriding concern among those gathered at the Bethpage Community Center one Tuesday evening in November, as the U.S. Navy hosted the 41st meeting of the twice-annual Resolution Advisory Board (RAB). These meetings fulfill its mandate to keep the public informed about remediation efforts in what has come to be known as the Bethpage Plume, but which most residents of the affected areas would rather have named the Grumman-Navy Plume.

The industrial activities at Grumman’s 635-acre facility in Bethpage were a backbone of Long Island’s economy and resulted in such products as legendary fighter aircraft and NASA’s lunar landing module. Manufacturing efforts ceased there in 1998, after Grumman merged with Northrup, but had produced hazardous wastes that seeped underground. Contamination has now spread several miles from the site. The groundwater pollution is mainly in the form of the industrial solvent trichloroethylene (TEC), used to clean metal parts prior to painting. It has been found at more than 8,200 parts per billion (ppb). Under the state’s Safe Drinking Water Act, the maximum contaminant level for TCE is 5 ppb. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists TCE as a human carcinogen.

While the aircraft manufacturing firm continues to deal with the pollution on the site, the Navy—which owned 105 acres and leased facilities to Grumman—has been tasked by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) to clean up two off-site deep plumes that contain levels of TCE greater than 1,000 ppb. These, in the 2003 Record of Decision (ROD) entered to between the Navy and the DEC, were described as hot spots. One is named RM-38 and is situated southeast of the site. In 2009, the Navy erected a treatment facility just west of Route 135 and it has reduced the contamination level significantly.

The other hot spot is named RE-108 and lies southwest of the site. Over the past several RAB meetings, Navy representative Laura Fly has faced criticism from residents, water district officials and politicians over the federal government’s slow pace of remediation for this zone. The Navy has been looking for a two-acre property in the area of Hempstead Turnpike and Hicksville Road (Route 107) in Plainedge to built a treatment facility. It expects to have one up and operating by 2022, a time frame that has caused much distress.

DEC Remediation and Materials Management Deputy Commissioner Martin Brand said, “We’re working with the Navy to expedite that schedule. We want to help them in terms of things like property acquisition in order to [shorten] that timeline.”

Oyster Bay Supervisor Joseph Saladino, during his time in the State Assembly, helped draft a law to have the DEC study how the plume could best be contained. He also has been publicly critical of the Navy’s efforts.

“We are demanding that complete remediation of the hot spots and the entire plume commence immediately. Far too much time has passed,” Saladino said. “The water districts, especially Bethpage, have spent a tremendous amount of money on this issue and they need to be fully reimbursed. This hasn’t happened yet.”

Saladino drew applause when he demanded that “we’ve got to switch from testing and watching to full remediation.”

Fly argued that continuous testing is necessary to diagram the geographic boundaries of the plume and determine how fast it’s traveling.

An Interim Solution

There was a tweak introduced in the proposed treatment of RE-108. The containment effort will now be called Phase II, defined as “a groundwater extraction, treatment and discharge system to capture the…groundwater near the downgradient edge.” Up to 1.7 million gallons per day (mgd) will be treated to drinking water standards and discharged into existing basins that collect rainwater.

A Phase I system will consist of an extraction well and piping to carry the water via an existing utility corridor to the Navy’s GM-38 facility. Navy contractor David Brayack told the audience that the project could be completed in 1½ years and treat up to 600,000 gallons/day.

Brayback said this operation would reduce the hot spot migration rate, and would accelerate the cleanup by removing a significant amount of contaminated mass.

Radiological Concerns

In the past, questions about potential illnesses and even cancer clusters associated with the plume have dominated the Q&A portion of the meeting. This time, news that levels of radium above the drinking water standards had been found in monitoring wells at two Bethpage schools was still fresh in the minds of attendees.

Brand, of the DEC, was asked what his agency was doing about it.

“We’ve been looking at Grumman’s use of radiological materials at the plant sites in the past,” Brand said, adding that the DEC is studying the records provided by the defense contractor.

Referring to one of the contaminated sites adjacent to the Grumman property, Brand said, “We went out to Bethpage Community Park and did field scans for radiological materials, and the good news is, we found nothing.”

The DEC will continue to monitor the wells at the Bethpage schools, though Brand assured that there are no health concerns.

“The radium that they found is at very shallow groundwater depth,” Bethpage Water District Superintendent Mike Boufis told Anton Media Group. “Our wells are a lot deeper and a lot further south than where those [monitoring] wells are.”

Brand also said that Grumman has been asked to take radium samples throughout its treatment systems, including three new extraction wells the firm has installed on William Street in Bethpage.

As to another carcinogenic recently in the news—1,4-dioxane—Brand said that while there is as yet no enforceable drinking water standard, “we have found a correlation with TCE and will compel the Navy and Grumman to factor in the presence of 1,4-dioxane in all of their treatment systems going forward.”

Commented Brayack, “The 1,4-dioxane is being tracked as an emerging contaminant. We are waiting for the state or the EPA to establish a standard and we’ll be testing some systems capable of removing it.”

Final Words

Saladino told Anton Media Group that, as veteran of virtually all 41 RAB meetings, he was disappointed with the Navy’s response.

“The Navy’s representatives make it feel like we’ve turned the clock back 10 years on our progress,” he said. “It would be easy for someone to presume that they’re trying to get out of this by spending the least amount of money possible.”

Saladino said the town has been putting a lot of pressure on the Navy to expend the funds to make the water districts whole, as remediating the hot spots, protecting the current water wells in Bethpage and South Farmingdale water districts “and the full hydraulic containment that stops the migration of the plume….It would be outrageous to contaminate the uncontaminated areas and the Great South Bay. It’s not an unreasonable amount of money, and the law states that [Grumman and the Navy] are the responsible parties.”

He added, “We are making progress, and I thank Governor Cuomo because his involvement has sped up the progress….We are acting on behalf of the residents who live here now and for the generations that will live here in the future.”

Brian Caldwell, soil geologist and Navy contractor, warned that total remediation will be costly and long term.

“There is no magic bullet,” he told Anton Media Group.


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