The Bethpage Water District has shut down one of its drinking-supply wells after elevated levels of radium were detected, and officials want to run tests in hopes of finding the source.
The amounts of radium detected so far do not violate federal or state drinking water standards, but the levels have increased since the district first tested for radium in 2006, officials said.
"We don't have a choice to be anything but conservative," said district superintendent Mike Boufis. "We need to better understand it, because we definitely don't want to take a chance."
To track the spread of the radioactive element, the 33,000-customer district has sought permission to test monitoring wells operated by the Navy and Northrop Grumman that are part of Superfund cleanups.
The district is also seeking Nassau County approval for a pilot program that would use a resin to remove the element, a known carcinogen, from the water supply.
In August 2012, untreated water drawn from a well at the district's Sophia Street plant had a radium level of 4.72 picocuries per liter, a measure of radiation. The level was 5.87 in January and 4.82 in April, Boufis said.
Radium levels in treated water at that well were slightly lower, officials said.
The state and federal standard for radium in treated drinking water is 5 picocuries per liter averaged over a year based on quarterly tests.
Boufis said the well in question, which tested low for radium in 2006 and 2010, was closed in January. It now "has elevated levels where we find it hard to believe it's naturally occurring," he said.
A second, occasionally used well at Sophia Street, where an August test found a radium level of 3.35 picocuries, is no longer being used for drinking water, but is being tapped for other uses, such as fighting fires. The district's six other wells have had radium levels below 1 picocurie, officials said.
The district is sending out its annual water quality report Friday to residents.
While the radium results are disclosed, the district notes that it conducts more than 10,000 water-quality tests a year and meets all drinking water standards.
The discovery of the elevated radium levels is the latest setback for the district, which has spent millions since the late 1980s to treat groundwater contamination stemming from manufacturing activities at the Navy and Northrop Grumman sites in Bethpage.
"If there is a meaningful threat, we need to understand this as soon as possible," said Rich Humann, president and chief operating officer of H2M, an engineering company that works for Bethpage and other water districts.
County Executive Edward Mangano, who lives in Bethpage, urged action. "The low-level early detect warrants an immediate, comprehensive investigation and commensurate remediation should the tests be confirmed," he said Wednesday in a statement.
Jeanne O'Connor, who formed the Bethpage Cancer Project with a friend to track local cancer rates with an eye on the plumes, was surprised by the radium concerns. "This is another reason why an investigation needs to be done," she said. "I'm wondering where it's coming from. Is there new pollution in the area?"
The monitoring wells are set up as part of state Department of Environmental Conservation treatment programs related to two groundwater plumes. The first was discovered in 1986; the second in 2009.
The Navy has granted access to 10 monitoring wells for the Bethpage district to sample, said Lora Fly, a remedial project manager for the Naval Facilities Engineering Command, which is overseeing the Navy's cleanup responsibilities.
Northrop Grumman has not responded to the district's request for access to its wells. Company officials did not comment Thursday.
"Though the levels of radium found have been low, the more information we have now, the better we can prepare for the future," Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in a statement Thursday. "The water district should obviously be permitted to test for radium on the Northrop Grumman property."
Drafting pilot program
Starting in 1942, the Navy and Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corp. (now Northrop Grumman) operated research, testing, design, fabrication and assembly plants in Bethpage. The more than 600-acre facility led to the development of the Apollo Lunar Module and Hellcat fighter plane.
Manufacturing stopped in 1998 and most of the Navy land has been deeded to Nassau County while Northrop Grumman has gradually wound down operations and greatly reduced staff.
Chromium contamination was discovered south of the Grumman site in 1949 and by 1986, a shallow plume had been discovered. In 2009, another plume was identified emanating from beneath Bethpage Community Park, which had been where Grumman legally dumped cadmium, arsenic, chromium-tainted sludge, solvents, paints and polychlorinated biphenyls. Volatile organic chemicals, including trichloroethene and tetrachloroethene, have been found in both plumes.
Boufis said the district has asked the state DEC for years to order tests for radioactive elements but has been denied. The DEC did not respond to requests for comment.
At a meeting on May 15, Fly said the Navy was looking over old site records to see if radionuclides -- such as radium and uranium -- were used at the Bethpage site.
They have also asked Northrop Grumman to do the same, she said.
Federal rules require the district test quarterly for radium, but Bethpage now plans to sample its water on a monthly basis, Boufis said.
Statewide, 11 water systems have exceeded standards -- one each in Orange and Westchester counties, and nine in Dutchess, said Peter Constantakes, a state health department spokesman.
No water systems in the state treat to remove radium, he said.
In conjunction with Calgon, the district wants to pilot a program that would use a resin to remove the radioactive element from the water.
Calgon is crafting a testing protocol that will be submitted to the county health department for approval, said Charles Drewry, Calgon national sales manager.
The company has the technology to remove uranium but so far has not attempted to eliminate radium from water, he said.
"We'll continue to sample to see when we get a breakthrough," Drewry said.