A tipster said chemical drums were beneath Bethpage Community Park. The DEC dismissed the claim.

Regulators in 2016 were notified but didn't demand new excavation or ground radar scans.

They concluded: "Buried drums do not exist beneath the park."

But this spring, workers unearthed 22 chemical drums from the site where generations of kids had played.

The words on the page stopped Sal Cornicelli cold.

"It is our conclusion that buried drums do not exist …" — his head snapped up and his eyes widened in disbelief —  "beneath the park."

“Bull,” the retired Town of Oyster Bay parks employee blurted out as he sat recently outside his home in Florida. He was reading, for the first time, a 2016 memo from New York environmental regulators, "Suspected Drums at Bethpage Community Park." “That’s not true at all.”

That early May afternoon, 1,200 miles away on Long Island, workers at the town park were unearthing a second set of 55-gallon drums, filled with chemicals and encased in concrete, as deep as 12 feet into the soil. Twenty-two drums of toxic waste have been removed from the former Grumman disposal ground since April, validating a tip from Cornicelli that was once dismissed.

On its own, this discovery would be significant in the Grumman contamination saga because it shows the state Department of Environmental Conservation, despite long knowing the aerospace giant's dumping caused significant environmental harm across Bethpage and surrounding communities, still doesn't grasp its full extent. 

After historically minimizing the problem, the agency's missteps — just like the pollution itself — go deeper than previously thought, a Newsday investigation found.

The DEC conducted a minimal review to come to its conclusion eight years ago that no drums remained buried at Bethpage Community Park, according to newly revealed records and interviews with those involved.

A tipster says he told the state about buried drums at Bethpage Community Park nearly a decade ago. Newsday's Ken Buffa reports. Credit: Newsday/Daddona / Pfost / Villa Loarca

After the Bethpage Water District relayed Cornicelli’s recollection of seeing drums uncovered in the 1990s and quickly reburied, the DEC ordered no new or accelerated excavation of the nearly 18-acre facility Grumman had gifted to Oyster Bay.

Regulators also didn’t ask Northrop Grumman, Grumman’s corporate successor, to conduct any new, comprehensive ground-penetrating radar scans of the property, records show, similar to what has happened since the discovery.

Rather, the DEC’s review, which lasted about three weeks, centered on viewing old aerial photos and reading old reports, including two of its own investigations from the early 2000s, when the park’s ballfield was first closed due to PCB-contaminated soil; a more-recent Northrop Grumman sampling of playground soil; and a summary of the town’s then-decade-old excavation of another large part of the site.

And while the state told the town in a May 2016 letter that its investigation was ongoing, the internal cover page to the DEC’s three-page report said its work had been completed and referenced no future action.

“It is our conclusion that buried drums do not exist beneath the park,” James B. Harrington, then the DEC remedial bureau director, wrote to Robert Schick, then the environmental remediation division director. “If they did exist, as the tipster seems to suggest, they were likely removed by the town.”

DEC report

The internal cover page to the DEC’s 3-page report said: “It is our conclusion that buried drums do not exist beneath the park.”

“How does that particular sentence get into this?” Cornicelli, 82, told Newsday in a recent exclusive interview, his first public comments, from his screened-in-patio overlooking a golf course in Jensen Beach, Florida. "This can't be right?"

The DEC cited records from Oyster Bay’s mid-2000s soil cleanup of about two-thirds of the park to build a new indoor ice skating center. The town had excavated nearly 160,000 cubic yards of soil, at depths of as much as 20 feet, opposite the newly found concrete-covered drums.

At the time, it cleared 15,000 tons of debris, including approximately 50 crushed steel drums, "none of which were reported to have had any liquids in them,” according to the state review.

Regulators in 2016 had spoken with Cornicelli, saying he provided "limited information." But they had also questioned his credibility, water district officials now say. The "confidential" tipster, as the DEC then called him in a letter to the town, was initially unwilling to go public with his identity because his son still held a town job, according to the water district.

“The site was pretty well investigated, but obviously something got missed,” Harrington, now retired, said to Newsday when reached by phone.

‘Fell on deaf ears’

That chemical drums remain buried on disposal land Grumman gave to the town for Bethpage Community Park is unsurprising, the DEC said. But it raises the question of whether a property already notorious for contributing to the contamination of an entire region may have been releasing more of it than thought.

The DEC told Newsday that none of the 22 drums, which they had no prior record of being buried on site, appeared to have leaked and therefore posed no new public threat. But not all of them appeared full, said Oyster Bay officials, meaning it's possible some of their contents had seeped into the soil in recent years.

The drums contained the same toxic metals, PCBs and volatile organic compounds — primarily the carcinogenic degreasing solvent trichloroethylene, or TCE — documented in the park’s soil and in the 4-mile-long plume of groundwater contaminants. The plume continues to spread, at roughly a foot a day, and has compelled local water providers to spend more than $50 million in drinking water treatment systems.

Each drum was encased in concrete blocks roughly 3 feet wide and deep and nearly 5 feet long. Credit: Graphics by Newsday/Neville Harvey

The park, as the source of the deepest plume contamination, is also central in a series of ongoing personal injury and proposed class-action lawsuits that allege Grumman contamination, including TCE in the air, water and soil, contributed to the illnesses of residents over the years. Northrop Grumman has denied the claims, and the state has never linked the pollution to negative health impacts.

Even if the pollution is no worse because of the just-uncovered drums, Bethpage Water District leaders said it’s regrettable that finding them took eight years after they passed along Cornicelli’s tip.

“We just thought this was another thing that fell on deaf ears,” district superintendent Michael Boufis said.

By 2016, the DEC, under new leadership, pledged to be tougher with Northrop Grumman and the U.S. Navy, which owned a portion of Grumman’s original 600-acre facility. That position had been spurred by pressure from the water district, which felt ignored as it asked for comprehensive plume containment.

“We were really on our own at that point,” Boufis said.

Current DEC officials defended the work eight years ago. They said the agency not only knew Oyster Bay had excavated a large part of the park, but that Northrop Grumman eventually would have to remediate the remaining ballfield portion, where the drums were recently found. They acknowledged that the DEC "was not privy to all known historical practices Grumman staff may have employed to dispose of chemicals."

“The health and safety of the Bethpage community remains a top priority for [the] DEC,” interim commissioner Sean Mahar said in a statement.

Missteps and minimization

Bethpage residents protest outside a 2012 meeting on state cleanup efforts for groundwater and soil contamination at the community park. Credit: Newsday/Daniel Goodrich

Grumman, as a Newsday investigation revealed in 2020, attempted to obscure its responsibility when Bethpage drinking water wells first were contaminated with chromium and TCE, confidential documents showed. It later privately marveled at the sheer amount of TCE its operations had released into the earth, with one company environmental manager writing to a colleague that the thought “caused my insides to start churnin’ somethin’ fierce!!”

The state at first endorsed Grumman findings that the plume wouldn't spread, saying in the 1990s that its full containment would be a "waste of time and money." In December 2020, following Newsday's reporting, the state reached a deal with Northrop Grumman and the U.S. Navy to fund the majority of a roughly half-billion-dollar plume containment and remediation plan that will take decades to complete.

After the drums were found this year, the DEC revised its separate ballfield soil cleanup finalized in 2013. It ordered Northrop Grumman to cart away some PCB-contaminated soil, rather than rebury it deep within Bethpage Community Park.

But that part of the job has been delayed for years, as Northrop Grumman first treats the soil with a heat remedy to remove the TCE.

“If you're still finding unknown drums, and you've already had a [cleanup plan] on the books for 11 years, then there wasn't enough of an investigation done earlier,” said Todd Ommen, a Pace Law School professor and managing attorney of its environmental litigation clinic. “It's a little bit surprising to me that that would have gone undetected for so long.”

recommendedTimeline: Grumman contamination at Bethpage Community Park

A Northrop Grumman spokesperson said in a statement the company “remains committed to protecting the health and well-being of the community.”

It soon will conduct a new geophysical, or ground penetrating radar, scan of the cleanup area. The company’s previous contractor initially missed the second set of drums this spring, Oyster Bay officials said.

"We are conducting further investigation to determine whether there are additional drums in the park," the Northrop Grumman statement said.

Judith Enck, who oversaw the DEC as former Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s deputy secretary of environment and later was a regional administrator with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said that work needed to be done in 2016.

“They should have been far more thorough,” she said.

‘We were kings’

Newsday covered the opening of Bethpage Community Park in 1965. Credit: Newsday

Grumman donated the land for Bethpage Community Park in 1962, burnishing its reputation as Long Island’s benevolent corporate giant. A contemporary letter from the town shows it knew the site's use as a dumping ground for the company’s waste — then believed to be “non toxic” — and said it could continue until the park was built.

The park opened three years later, and for nearly 40 years was a community centerpiece, its ballfield hosting multiple generations of youth baseball, football and summer camps.

“We were kings,” Ronald Moffa, 63, recalled, comparing Bethpagers to surrounding communities with lesser park facilities. “We had dugouts. We were used to dirt.”

The DEC first identified the Grumman-Navy grounds as a contamination source in the 1980s. It ordered the first soil and groundwater cleanup in 1995. But regulators were still years from recognizing the extent of what had spread beyond company fence lines.

“Have there been any investigations of properties formerly owned by Grumman (e.g., Bethpage Community Park)?” a resident asked in a comment published in the DEC’s 1995 remediation plan.

“A direct investigation of the Bethpage Community Park was not conducted,” the agency responded. “However, monitoring wells were installed immediately downgradient [south] of the Park.

“Based upon the current data, the Park is not considered to be a source area.”

The awakening came in 2002, when the town first closed the ballfield over PCBs. Within a decade, the area — once Grumman’s “open pit” for disposing of TCE-soaked rags, drying toxic sludge and igniting waste oil and jet fuel — also was revealed as a source of the worst groundwater contamination. The DEC has said Grumman's use of the land before it was donated was thought to be legal at the time. Before the 1970s, there were very few environmental restrictions in state or federal law.

“A lot of people don’t know about the park. They know about the plume,” said John Castles, 63, another longtime Bethpage resident. “We know about the park because we live here.”

The discovery

Sal Cornicelli, then and now. The longtime Bethpage resident was an Oyster Bay town parks maintenance employee working at Bethpage Community Park when he said he saw drums uncovered and reburied in the 1990s. Credit: Cornicelli family; Newsday / Alejandra Villa Loarca

After discharge from the Navy, Cornicelli spent about two years in the early 1960s working for Grumman, maintaining the company's same S2F anti-submarine warcraft airplanes he did as a crewman in the service. He later owned a service station in Farmingdale.

By the mid-1980s, the Bethpage resident, active in the local Republican Club, landed a job as an auto mechanic with the GOP-controlled Town of Oyster Bay. He next was a groundskeeper at the soon-to-open town golf course in Woodbury.

The town brought him home to Bethpage Community Park in the early 1990s. Cornicelli, then in his 50s, was a maintenance supervisor when one day a fuel tank for town vehicles at the park needed replacement.

Cornicelli recalled watching a backhoe dig into the ground near where the park’s flagpole and monuments once stood.

To the left was the old ice rink, replaced during the town's 2006 project, and to the right bathhouses for the swimming pool that remain today.

He watched from one side of the hole, which he said was about 8 feet by 10 feet wide and 8 feet deep.

Then-town parks superintendent Richard Betz, his boss, watched from the other side, Cornicelli said.

“All of a sudden there’s like a crash. We’re looking down and all these 55-gallon drums are exposed,” he said, recalling about six to nine of them on their sides, none in concrete. “The first thing Richie Betz does is say, ‘Cover that back up!’ I knew something was wrong.”

Days later, the area was paved over with a driveway, he said.

Limited investigation

John Coumatos, left, a Bethpage Water District commisioner, passed along Cornicelli's tip. The tip prompted Oyster Bay officials, right, to briefly close portions of the park. Credit: Yeong-Ung Yang; Ed Betz

Cornicelli never formally objected to the drums’ reburial, saying he worried about the political influence of Betz and his bosses, all from Massapequa, the town power base. Betz died in 2019.

By 1994 Cornicelli was working for the town's Harry Tappen Beach and Marina in Glenwood Landing, records show. He retired in 2006.

“Somebody should have been notified," Cornicelli said of the drums he saw at Bethpage Community Park in the '90s.

In 2016, somebody was. He recounted his story to a friend, John Coumatos, who owns B.K. Sweeney's Parkside Tavern in town. Coumatos had recently become a Bethpage Water District commissioner. He connected Cornicelli with the DEC. The agency notified Northrop Grumman and the town, which closed parts of the park.

But Boufis, the water district superintendent, said the DEC told him in 2016 that they didn’t consider Cornicelli credible because his recollection wasn't precise and because he wanted to keep a lower profile, as his son still held a town job at the time.

“They didn't do ground-penetrating radar; they didn't do anything like that,” Boufis said of the DEC.

The state said its law enforcement division had several discussions with Cornicelli, obtaining “limited information.” But it otherwise relied mostly on the old reports — a “paper investigation,” as Ommen, the environmental law professor, put it.

Shortly after Harrington, the DEC’s remedial bureau director, told Schick, the environmental remediation division director, that the drums review had been completed, Schick notified Oyster Bay in a letter.

“I am certainly very happy that that chapter of the story had a happy ending,” then-Town Supervisor John Venditto told Newsday as he reopened recently closed parts of the park.

‘Drums … likely removed’

An aerial view of Bethpage Community Park shows the two sites where the 22 drums were found. Red shading shows where Grumman once dried toxic sludges and a blue circle indicates where it disposed of chemical-soaked rags. A tipster said he saw buried drums between the ice rink and pool.  Credit: Newsday Photo/ J. Conrad Williams; Newsday Graphic/ Andrew Wong

The DEC wrote in the 2016 review that there was "no information to suggest that buried drums or significant levels of contaminants remain in the publicly accessible areas of the Park which would result in an exposure to Park users.”

It added: “DEC believes that the drums referenced by the anonymous tipster were likely removed” during the 2006-07 excavation of the 11-acre portion of Bethpage Community Park where the town built the new ice skating center and a new parking lot, opposite the tainted ballfield.

Newsday, however, reviewed a final engineering map of that project and found the entire 11-acre area was not excavated to 20 feet.

Pockets of it — including a small area of the parking lot and spots just outside the old flagpoles, where Cornicelli recalled seeing the drums — were dug out no more than 2 feet or not at all, town records show.

The DEC’s review noted the contaminated ballfield was still slated for a full investigation; that it and a recharge basin were inaccessible to the public; that the tennis court and playground areas “had been investigated extensively” by Northrop Grumman; and that old aerial photos of the land showed the swimming pool area was previously “undisturbed woodlands.”

It added that areas of possible deep soil contamination covered by asphalt or artificial playing surfaces would pose no threat to the public, anyway.

“It's clear someone dropped the ball — and that’s being polite,” said Town of Oyster Bay Supervisor Joseph Saladino, who in 2016 as a state assemblyman urged the state to study the feasibility of the full groundwater plume containment it ultimately embraced. “They didn't have the will to go after Grumman.”

DEC officials note today that it made little sense for Grumman to have taken such care with the recently discovered drums, each individually encased in concrete, when they contained the same waste the company freely had dumped directly into the ground.

It may have instead buried these drums, they said, to fill and weigh down concrete blocks that formed a retaining wall to alert trucks where to stop and dump chemicals.

A black cloud

The former ballfield at Bethpage Community Park in Bethpage on April 2. Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

For 22 years, Bethpage Community Park's fenced-off old ballfield, currently teeming with heavy equipment, has become a symbol of the entire Grumman contamination crisis.

“That was the cornerstone when we grew up," Coumatos, 65, said. "It’s a black cloud in our community until this is fixed.”

Outside his home in Florida, Cornicelli lamented that he didn’t have enough sway to force a complete probe of buried drums under the park, either in the 1990s or in 2016.

“Very frustrating that nobody would listen,” he said, recalling — like many others in Bethpage — that he has had numerous friends die at young ages of cancers officials have never formally linked to the contamination.

After a three-year investigation, the state health department’s lone study of Bethpage concluded in 2013 there were no higher overall cancer rates in a 20-block area closest to Grumman’s property, with the caveat that scientifically linking residential cancer clusters and pollution is nearly impossible. Within a one-block area, the study noted cancer patients were younger than expected, but it said it was too small an area to suggest a pattern.

Cornicelli became emotional when he spoke of community parades that would start at the fire department and end at the park’s flagpole and monuments, near where he had seen the drums covered up.

“We used to stop right there. With the flag and everything," Cornicelli said, studying a park map. "In the meantime I think, ‘There’s junk under there.’ It wasn’t very nice."

His eyelids reddened. He teared up, momentarily, before dismissing the thought.

“In fact, it’s bad memories.”

Reporter: Paul LaRocco

Editors: Keith Herbert, Rochell Bishop Sleets, Don Hudson

Multimedia Journalist: Ken Buffa

Photo editor: John Keating

Video editor: Jason Roseman

Videographers and photographers: J. Conrad Williams, Alejandra Villa Loarca, Peter Frutkoff, Bill Senft, Ed Betz, Anthony Florio, Randee Daddona and Howard Schnapp 

Video producer: Artie Mochi

Digital design: James Stewart

Digital development: TC McCarthy

Graphics/print design: Neville Harvey, Andrew Wong

Project manager: Tara Conry

Copy editing: Estelle Lander, John Medeiros

Additional research: Caroline Curtin, Laura Mann

Social media: Priscilla Korb, Sanjana Joshi

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