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Residents frustrated after more contaminated soil found in Bethpage field

Thermal wells are shown inside the former baseball

Thermal wells are shown inside the former baseball field at Bethpage Community Park, which was donated to the community in 1962 by Grumman. New soil contamination has been found outside the ballfield area. Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

New areas of contaminated soil from Grumman operations have been found beneath Bethpage Community Park, just outside a former ballfield long targeted for cleanup.

The discovery has frustrated residents and town officials that Northrop Grumman and the state — after nearly 18 years — are still grappling with the extent of pollution at the company's former waste site.

Tests in May found volatile organic compounds, which include the carcinogenic solvent trichloroethylene, or TCE, at up to 150 parts per million, 15 times the target cleanup goals set by the state.

The contamination, 36 feet to 52 feet below ground, doesn't pose an immediate risk to the community, state environmental and Town of Oyster Bay officials said. But it's just outside the ballfield — built over a pit Grumman once used to dump solvent-soaked rags — that has been closed since 2002.

Cleanup work in that area, which involves heating the soil through 230 wells to release and collect contamination, is scheduled to start next spring, after numerous delays.

Northrop Grumman consultants are expected to be at the park for two weeks early this month drilling additional wells to map the extent of the new contamination and come up with an additional remediation plan, according to Martin Brand, deputy commissioner for the office of remediation and materials management at the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

"Certainly we did a full and detailed investigation prior," Brand said. But, he said, "It's not unusual for us in the course of a remediation of this scope to find some isolated areas that were not previously characterized."

Oyster Bay officials believe Northrop Grumman's slow cleanup process allowed the pollution to spread from the former rag pit into the new area. More than a decade ago, the town expedited a $22 million cleanup of a separate seven-acre portion of the park with less contamination.

“It's a shame, quite frankly. The town expended considerable money, and it's just a shame that Grumman has not expedited the cleanup in the same fashion the town did,” Matt Russo, a civil engineer with the Town of Oyster Bay Public Works Department, said in an interview.

Northrop Grumman is responsible for the Bethpage Community Park cleanup under a 2013 agreement with the state. Company representatives didn't respond to requests for comment.

From the 1930s to 1990s, the 600-acre Grumman facility in Bethpage was home to aerospace manufacturing, research and testing, including the Apollo moon lander and military aircraft. It was declared a state Superfund site in 1983.

The park was built on land donated to the town by Grumman in 1962. Both the company and the U.S. Navy, which owned 105 acres of the 600-acre site, are responsible for cleaning up the region's larger area of groundwater pollution.

The contaminated groundwater coming from the park is being pumped and treated, so it is not adding to the groundwater plume, Brand said. The plume, Long Island's largest, spreads a foot per day and is now 4.3 miles long, 2.1 miles wide at its widest point and up to 900 feet deep. It contains at least 24 contaminants, including TCE and the emerging contaminant 1,4-dioxane, a likely carcinogen that can't be removed through traditional treatment methods.

Russo said it's not clear how the new contamination — which is in soil, as opposed to groundwater — will be removed. Northrop Grumman told the town the system the company has designed and installed is "maxed out of its capacity" and that the new contamination will have to be addressed separately, according to Russo.

Brand said the new contamination might be cleaned up by extending the existing treatment.

"It's not going to slow down the long-awaited cleanup activities that are going on at the ballfields. They'll have to continue that work while they're investigating this narrow area of contamination," Brand said. "And then they'll have to propose a remedy for that, which will very likely just be an extension" of the existing system.

Oyster Bay closed the 18-acre park in May 2002 after discovery of the contaminated soil. Initially, officials cited elevated levels of toxic metals and the industrial compounds polychlorinated biphenyls, known as PCBs.

The ballfield, where contamination levels of total volatile organic compounds have been as high as 8,200 parts per million, has not reopened. But town leaders — after suing Northrop Grumman and the Navy in 2005 — went forward with their own cleanup on the opposite end of the ballfield, ultimately building an ice-skating rink.

The town, however, undertook a more extensive remediation, with deeper soil excavation than the state recommended. It cost nearly four times the estimate for an alternative endorsed by the state as “fully protective of human health and cost-effective.”

Northrop Grumman defended itself against the town’s suit by arguing, among other things, that it shouldn’t be liable for the cleanup bill because the town didn’t choose the most cost-effective remedy. 

In May 2009, then-U.S. District Court Judge Thomas C. Platt ruled in favor of the company, as well as the Navy. The court denied the town’s appeals in 2010 and 2011, and fully dismissed the Navy as a defendant.

Northrop Grumman has filed a counterclaim against the town, seeking recovery of some of its costs over the years for investigating and remediating the still-closed ballfield portion of the park. The parties are negotiating over remaining aspects of the case, according to a status report filed Nov. 18.

Meanwhile, the delayed cleanup has been a source of community frustration, most recently at a Navy-sponsored community meeting in Bethpage on Nov. 14.

Though there was no mention of the new park contamination and no Northrop Grumman representative who addressed the crowd, residents vented their frustration.

"This site needs to be cleaned up. It's affecting the whole community, and to say, 'Well, we're looking at it' — they've been looking at it for close to 20 years," said Tom Frost, 69, a Bethpage resident, retired Nassau police officer and former school board member.

State Department of Environmental Conservation project manager Jason Pelton responded: "We're pushing Grumman to get this work done. We really are.

"So bear with us a little bit longer," he said. "I'm sorry we're taking so long, but I do believe this will be starting early 2020 and should only take about half a year to clean up that soil."

Gina McGovern, who has lived about two blocks from the park for 25 years and followed the cleanup, said both Northrop Grumman and the Navy have acted too slowly.

"Good grief," she said in response to the new contamination. "This is enough. This is a major corporation that could find this money in their sofa cushion. This major corporation is essentially sitting on their hands and has been for many years. It is appalling.”

The new treatment system near the ballfields was scheduled to start operating in "mid-2019" and be completed by early 2020, according to the DEC's website.

Brand said the state and town had to sign off on the work plans.

"We had to certainly work with the town and others to get access, get the appropriate approvals, make sure everyone was comfortable with the work that was going to be completed," he said. "That took maybe a little extra time."

About TCE

Trichloroethene, or TCE, is a human-made chemical widely used to remove grease from manufactured product. The EPA classifies it a carcinogen. It can get into the groundwater as well as soil. In soil it can evaporate into the air as soil vapor (air spaces between soil particles) that can migrate through foundations and into the indoor air of nearby buildings, where it poses the most danger to human health.

One of two dozen contaminants in the Bethpage groundwater plume it has also been found in the soil at Bethpage Community Park above the state standard of 10 parts per million.

According to the state Department of Health, TCE can cause effects on the central nervous system, liver, kidneys, reproductive and immune systems, and may affect fetal development during pregnancy.

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