A 5-megawatt battery storage unit, located in East Hampton, has...

A 5-megawatt battery storage unit, located in East Hampton, has been out of service since a fire in May.  Credit: Veronique Louis

Weeks after Gov. Kathy Hochul declared “no harmful toxins” were detected at three lithium-battery sites that experienced fires last year, activists on Long Island who reviewed the lengthy state report say it may raise more questions than it answers.

Among their concerns is that the preliminary state analysis of a May 31 fire at an East Hampton battery facility didn’t require a groundwater study after a large amount of fire-suppression water was released. They also noted that four months passed between the fire and the collection of soil samples at the site, according to the state report, and that the ability to test for lithium was initially lacking among contractors. In the end, levels for lithium were found to be within safe standards, the report noted.

“On the whole, I believe the report to be incomplete and the conclusion premature,” said John Kongoletos, a member of Southold Town’s Battery Energy Storage System task force. Southold has a moratorium on the development of battery storage facilities.

Battery storage plants have only just begun to be built on Long Island, with only two in the LIPA service territory, including the East Hampton site. Newsday has reported that dozens of the facilities, including some many times larger than the East Hampton unit, are proposed for communities from Glen Head and Island Park to the Hamptons and North Fork.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • After a state report found “no harmful toxins” at the sites of fires at three lithium-battery facilities last year, activists on Long Island say the report may raise more questions than it answers.
  • Key concerns are that an analysis of a May 31 fire at an East Hampton battery site didn’t require a groundwater study after fire-suppression water was released and soil samples weren't taken until four months after the fire.
  • Facility owners NextEra and National Grid insist there are “no safety or power concerns for local residents and businesses as a result of the facility being out of service.”

The state and LIPA view the large battery facilities as important pillars of their long-term plan to transition to an all-green energy grid by 2040. Battery storage units are slated to gradually displace a fleet of small fuel-fired power plants that serve peak power needs, while allowing the utility to store energy during periods when wind farms and solar arrays are not producing energy.

One facility approved by the state in October already faces potential legal challenges. Last month, in a statement to Newsday, Christopher J. Pellettieri, superintendent of Sachem Central School District, noted that at a Dec. 20 board of education meeting, the board “decided to pursue legal action regarding the placement of the battery plant [in Holtsville] and its proximity to our schools.”

The district said details are “still being finalized but we are committed to taking steps legally in preventing this from happening where it’s currently planned with the safety of our students, staff and school community in mind.” The facility is planned for a lot at the corner of the Long Island Expressway's south service road and Morris Avenue. 

Local governments and school districts on Long Island are expressing skepticism after the East Hampton battery fire required 30 continual hours of dousing by an internal water system to extinguish, according to the state report. The fire led officials to request a 1-mile evacuation downwind of smoke, according to documents shown to Newsday. In the end, the evacuation wasn't required, one fire official said. 

The facility, owned by NextEra and National Grid, is undergoing a near-complete internal replacement, according to the owners, who insist there are “no safety or power concerns for local residents and businesses as a result of the facility being out of service.”

National Grid and NextEra have been “safely and diligently working toward substantially rebuilding the facility, which included a comprehensive assessment of the site,” spokesman Bill Orlove said.

Gerald Turza Jr., fire and emergency medical services administrator for the East Hampton Village Fire Department, who responded to the fire and two subsequent inspections of the battery facility, said the company has provided his department with few details of any tests from the monitoring equipment he saw on site. 

“We were sitting there a few months later and they couldn't provide us with very basic information — we're not talking nuclear launch codes," said Turza, a 32-year veteran firefighter who is a former chief of the department. “What were we exposed to? They've got air monitoring inside, they've got meters set up, but what were the levels post-incident? What was released?" 

Hochul, in releasing preliminary results last month from an intra-agency task force examining battery fires at three sites, declared, “Thankfully, the Working Group’s analysis shows no notable lasting impacts on the health or safety of the first responders or the communities they serve.”

Testing at East Hampton

The state report, which includes NextEra's internal analysis, notes soil samples were taken on Oct. 4 from the area around the barn-size battery storage facility in East Hampton near a LIPA substation on Cove Hollow Road, four months after the fire. After the fire was out, a large buildup of water used to suppress the fire inside the facility was released onto the ground around the container, including on a dirt road adjacent to the facility.

In addition, wipe samples of the facility were taken and tested two weeks after the fire, but the preliminary state report notes “no conclusions could be made” from them because there were no background or “unimpacted sample results to compare the results with.” 

In all, seven soil samples were taken, including five in the area where water had discharged after the fire about one foot below the surface, the Department of Environmental Conservation report says.

But the company NextEra used to conduct a test of the sample “failed to analyze the submitted soil samples for lithium since they were not certified” to sample for lithium in New York, and failed to submit the sample to a subcontractor that could, the report notes.

In addition, the report states, the DEC did not add lithium to the list of metals required for the analysis until a day after the company collected the soil sample. Ultimately, the testing was done and lithium levels did not exceed the DEC's commercial-site limits, the report noted

The final analysis “did not identify concentrations of constituents of concern in excess of New York DEC’s ‘soil cleanup objectives’ for commercial use,” and found “no discernible difference in the concentration of constituents of concern in site background soil samples [not impacted by runoff] versus those samples collected in the water discharge area.”

As a result, the company declared it is “apparent that there are no adverse impacts to the soils as a result of the battery fire discharge water,” and both National Grid and NextEra “recommend no further investigation or remedial activities.” They requested the state change the status of the spill to “closed.”

DEC spokesman Jeff Wernick referred questions about the amount of water discharged into the ground to East Hampton Fire Department officials.

Turza said the company offered him no estimate of how much water was released, though in his initial walkthrough, water accumulated from 4 to 6 inches inside the facility. After reading the state report, Turza said one of his questions was, “Why was there no groundwater sampling?" 

Kongoletos, who is an MIT graduate with a background in energy conservation and management, said the report raised a number of questions, including why the companies “dragged their feet on both submitting the sampling plan and ultimately executing” the plan.

“The delay between the fire event and the collection of the soil samples may have, with the presence of rain or irrigation, diluted any previously waterborne metals,” Kongoletos wrote in an email to Newsday. He also took exception to the location from which the soil sample was taken, and noted the geologist used by Florida-based NextEra is licensed in Florida rather than New York.

In declaring the report “incomplete” and its conclusion of no toxins “premature,” Kongoletos noted the full report’s title refers to “air, soil, and water data findings,” yet the East Hampton section only refers to soil and swipe samples. “It omits groundwater impacts, written analyses from consulted engineers, and the independence of a contracted party in the sample collection,” he wrote, while calling the four-month delay between the fire and the sample collection “concerning.”

NextEra's Orlove said, “We have conducted all testing required by the [DEC] and will continue to comply with sampling in conformance with their regulations.”

But it’s unclear whether any additional testing will take place given the company's request to change the status of the spill incident to “closed.” 

'No further action … required'

Wernick, the DEC spokesman, said the agency has reviewed the results of the East Hampton investigation and “determined no further action would be required.”

Asked why no below-surface groundwater sampling was done, Wernick said, “With no evidence of any soil contamination observed, groundwater sampling was not requested.”

“Had a significant release of metals occurred, the concentrations of those contaminates would still be elevated in soil and additional investigation would have been requested,” Wernick said.

But Si Kinsella, a Wainscott resident who lives nearly three miles from the East Hampton facility, said he believes the DEC should have required water sampling. Documents he’s received from the town and reviewed by Newsday show the East Hampton police, upon arrival at the facility, “found heavy smoke coming from” the battery storage container.

“Due to the toxicity of the smoke, it was requested by the fire department that the surrounding area be evacuated,” while LIRR trains were also held up for an unspecified amount of time. 

“There are no groundwater tests, and the soil samples appear to have been taken upgradient in the opposite direction from where the extinguishing groundwater would have drained into the soil,” Kinsella wrote in an email. His main concern is that neither the owners nor the DEC required water testing for so-called forever chemicals such as perfluorinated alkylated substances (PFAS), which could result from high-temperature fires of lithium-ion batteries and other plant constituents.

Kinsella pointed to a 2023 report in the journal Environmental Science & Technology that examined extinguishing water from lithium-ion battery fires — three electric vehicles and one battery pack — and found PFAS were detected in the water, which also showed elevated concentrations of nickel, cobalt, lithium, manganese and fluoride.

Gabrielle Corso, a Holbrook resident who is leading a residents’ group in opposition to a planned 110-megawatt battery facility in Holtsville, said the report omits key findings.

“I’d like to know what they are cleaning up in East Hampton and why that wasn’t referenced” in the report, she said.

In the end, Corso said, “I think the study was rushed and the lack of public transparency, involvement, lack of outreach to the local elected officials call into question the full scope and validity of the working group’s results.”

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