Suffolk County Health Services in 2011 had strong enough concerns about small traces of new toxins found at a major plume remediation site in Bay Shore that it requested $413,000 to research and monitor them. But New York State nixed the effort.
In letters and emails among state, county and federal officials provided to Newsday, officials at the state Department of Environmental Conservation disagreed with the concerns, and declined a county request to have site owner National Grid pay for the studies.
The newly discovered contaminants, called oxy-PAHs -- for oxygenated polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons -- were an issue because studies suggested that they might be created by the very oxygen-injection process being used to clean up the plumes. There was also a concern that because oxy-PAHs were difficult to detect, they could simply be a converted, though no less harmful, form of the original toxins.
Concern over future impact
There is no evidence to suggest that was the case in Bay Shore and other manufactured gas plant sites, but Suffolk and federal water-quality officials said more work was needed to be sure. They requested groundwater tests at the Bay Shore site and other former MGP sites, including at Sag Harbor, Patchogue and Halesite, all owned and remediated by National Grid.
DEC disagreed. "As we have noted in previous conversations, the Department does not believe that the available evidence supports the existence of significant oxy-PAH contamination at Bay Shore or at any of the other MGP sites in Suffolk County," DEC remediation director Michael Ryan wrote to Suffolk Health Services in the July 21, 2011, letter.
Suffolk's concerns centered on the relatively limited amount of data about oxy-PAHs to date and potential future impacts on water quality. They noted the only available evidence of the new contaminants was based on a "snapshot" taken in August 2010, as new systems for pumping oxygen into the mile-long plume began to operate. Suffolk initially questioned the safety of the oxygen-injection systems, which are intended to encourage microbes to eat toxins.
"The data obtained are an important, but limited, data set, and additional investigations would be necessary to fully characterize the potential long-term effects of oxy-PAHs on both groundwater and aquatic ecosystems at the Bay Shore and other MGP sites that have yet to be remediated," Dr. James Tomarken, commissioner of Suffolk's Department of Health Services, wrote in the July 13, 2011, request.
Suffolk continues to emphasize the need for further study. This month, Grace Kelly-McGovern, a health services spokeswoman, said the agency "continues to explore the feasibility of additional monitoring" of oxy-PAHs and is "working with the USGS [U.S. Geological Survey] to determine possible study requirements."
She said, "There's no data to suggest that the oxy-PAHs pose any health risk at the Bay Shore site," but the agency is "always supportive of any research efforts to further our understanding of the occurrence and fate of environmental contaminants."
The 2011 study would have paved the way for continued monitoring and sampling of groundwater at Bay Shore and the other sites and assessed the impacts to surface water and sediments. Residents at a meeting this month with state Sen. Phil Boyle (R-Bay Shore) expressed concerns about oxy-PAHs, Boyle said. "I want to make sure residents get all the information they want and deserve," he said.
Residents agreed. "We don't know, good or bad, what the effects are. We don't know how to measure it," said Bill Sullivan, who lives next to an oxygen-injection system. "Don't we deserve to know what's under our properties if it's something that could be caused by the remediation itself?"
With funding from Suffolk County, the USGS discovered a way to detect and monitor oxy-PAHs and conducted the first series of tests at Bay Shore.
In his note rejecting the 2011 proposal, Ryan noted the technique was "rapidly reducing contaminant levels to drinking water standards" and said multiple layers of equipment offer "a level of redundancy in treatment that will only serve to further reduce the already low levels of oxy-PAH compounds reported in the preliminary USGS study."
Affected homeowners unite
Residents have been organizing in recent weeks after the home of one neighbor on Lanier Lane was affected with plume-related contaminants when the family installed a new sump pump and groundwater levels rose with superstorm Sandy. National Grid contractors have been at work in the yard of the house for months.
Joseph Simone, a physician and former lab researcher who lives a few doors down from that house, said a scientific paper raised concerns that the oxygenation technique could mask toxins. Simone is one of more than 50 homeowners who have sued National Grid, saying the plumes and remediation approach have reduced the value of their homes.
"The paper said if you supersaturate contaminants with oxygen, there's a possibility the tests will indicate there are lower levels of toxins, but it could still be toxic, if not more toxic," he said.
Shawn Fisher, a USGS hydrologist on the initial oxy-PAH study, said the preference before making conclusions about contaminants was to have "long-term data sets." But, he said, "the folks we were talking with [at DEC] didn't see any benefit in continuing. The county does, but it doesn't seem they have the money."