Answers forthcoming, but slow pace of remediation riles residents
Amidst the technical jargon and talk of volatile organic compounds with unpronounceable names, one question hovered over the proceedings updating the public on the Bethpage Plume: Is our drinking water safe?
The occasion was the 38th twice-annual meeting of the Restoration Advisory Board (RAB), hosted earlier this spring by the U.S. Navy Environmental Restoration Program at the Bethpage Community Center. The RAB was instituted in 1999 to keep citizens apprised of the efforts to remedy and contain the groundwater contamination associated with the former Northrop Grumman/Naval Weapons Industrial Reserve Plant (NWIRP) in Bethpage.
Dozens of attendees heard from and had a chance to quiz representatives from the Navy, state health and environmental protection departments and the county’s health department. As is usual, no one from Northrup Grumman was present at the meeting. The company ceased building aircraft in Bethpage in 1996 and is now headquartered in Virginia.
Officials from several area water districts were also in attendance, occasionally commenting or answering questions. Someone asked Bethpage Water District Superintendent Michael Boufis about the safety of the drinking water in his district.
“Yes, the water’s safe,” Boufis responded. “It’s safe to drink, to shower with, to bathe with and to swim in.
“We will not let you down. We’re on top of it,” he added. “We built our system to remove all contaminants. If we get hit with 4,600 parts [per billion] of TCE [trichloroethylene] we’ll remove it.”
Someone in the audience yelled out, “So we don’t have to buy Poland Spring?”
“You don’t have to buy Poland Spring,” affirmed Boufis, whose district has been closely involved with the effort ever since Grumman employees began noticing a foul taste and odor in the company’s tap water back in the 1970s. Grumman had its own water system then, later switching to Bethpage’s for drinking purposes.
Under the state and federal safe drinking water standards, the maximum contaminant limit for TCE is 5 ppb. First developed as an anesthetic in the 19th century, TCE was later mainly used in industrial processes as a solvent and degreaser. Prolonged exposure has been linked to respiratory illnesses and even cancer.
Much of the presentation focused on an area named RE108, tabbed as a “hot spot” with high contamination levels. It describes an elongated oval extending from just south of Central Avenue in Bethpage–near the edge of the old Grumman property—to just south of the Hempstead Turnpike/Hicksville Road intersection in Plainedge. Test borings done in the area have confirmed TCE levels of up to 4,700 ppb. It lies within the Bethpage Water District and encompasses a now defunct well, 6-2, where high TCE levels were detected.
“We’re working on remediating this,” Navy contractor David Krayak said of RE108. “We’re continuing to investigate. We recognize that it’s a high priority issue.”
RE108 is itself part of the Bethpage Plume, an ever expanding and moving pool of contaminated water. Numerous vertical profile borings (VPB) have been drilled down to 1,000 feet and water from various levels is then tested to determine the extent of the plume, which has been steadily moving and expanding since being identified in the 1990s. Three VPBs sampling groundwater south of the Southern State Parkway have not yet detected TCE.
Krayak noted the paucity of available land in the area of RE108, and said the Navy is actively seeking to buy property to build a structure to house treatment equipment. He mentioned a shuttered gas station for sale at the corner of Hempstead Turnpike and Hicksville Road (Route 107).
“It will be a big project and we’ll be running pipes through Hempstead Turnpike, shutting down the intersection for periods of time,” Krayak said of the site. “This is going to be very expensive and we want to make sure we do it right.”
Krayak gave the estimated timeline for property acquisition, design and startup of the treatment facility—the last would begin as late as 2022.
This did not sit well with many, and Assemblyman Joseph Saladino spoke for his constituents. After noting that the groundwater contamination had created “the highest concentration of these chemicals found in a sole-source aquifer in the entire nation,” the pol blasted the slow pace of remediation.
“I understand that these are complicated issues, but 2022 is way too long to get this started,” Saladino said to applause, earning another round of clapping later when he remarked, “We know it’s the responsibility of Grumman and the Navy to clean this up, and not the taxpayers and the water districts. They did not put [the contaminants] there, and they should not be responsible to pay for it.”
One of the presenters, Navy contractor and hydrogeologist Brian Caldwell, said, “The biggest problem with the [plume] is how deep it is. Most are 40-60 feet deep and much easier to deal with.”
As for the absence of the federal EPA at the meetings, Caldwell said the board does meet regularly with the agency to keep it apprised, but “the EPA deferred the regulatory authority to the state,” he said. “They recognized that the [DEC’s] requirements are as rigorous as theirs.”
Caldwell, a veteran of the oft-contentious meetings, observed, “They can get entertaining, that’s for sure.”