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State approves $585M plan to clean up Bethpage groundwater contamination

Groundwater pollution from the Grumman and U.S. Navy

Groundwater pollution from the Grumman and U.S. Navy site caused Bethpage Water District drinking water wells to close in 1976. Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

New York State will move forward with its $585 million plan to stop the spread of groundwater pollution in Bethpage and clean it up using two dozen wells pumping and treating millions of gallons of water each day, state officials said.

The Department of Environmental Conservation's plan, approved Friday by state regulators, comes over the objections of Northrop Grumman and the U.S. Navy, who both are considered “potentially responsible parties” for the groundwater contamination.

After reviewing more than 200 comments from Bethpage residents, Nassau water districts and the parties responsible for Long Island's largest groundwater plume, the state's final plan maintains that the network of pumps, treatment systems and recharge basins are necessary to prevent the pollution from reaching additional drinking water wells. Cleanup of the contamination to reach drinking water standards is projected to take 110 years. 

Full report by Newsday on Scribd

"The plan is both feasible and would effectively stop the further spread of contaminants and ultimately, over time, reduce the contamination within the aquifer," DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos said in an interview. "This is a major milestone in this many decadeslong effort to hold Grumman and the Navy accountable."

The Navy and Northrop Grumman would not comment on the plan Friday. A Navy spokesman said he had not seen it.

Virginia-based Northrop Grumman in August called the cleanup proposal "unnecessary, infeasible, and impractical" and requested that it be withdrawn. The Navy, in September, said the proposal "fails to adequately assess whether the cost of the proposed remedy is proportional to the overall effectiveness."

The cleanup estimate includes construction costs and 30 years of operation and maintenance expenses. More than 250,000 people are in the path of the groundwater pollution.

Northrop Grumman and the Navy previously accused the state of not basing its plan on science, pointing to past positions by the DEC that full cleanup and containment wasn't possible or necessary to protect residents.

Seggos said the plan is based on a $6 million groundwater study done with the U.S. Geological Survey that provided more detailed mapping of the plume, plus renewed focus on cleanup by the state.

"We have let science be our guide here," Seggos said. He added, "To expect that it's acceptable to let it grow further and eventually reach the Atlantic is, in my view, totally unacceptable."

The former 600-acre Grumman site in Bethpage, which included 105 acres owned by the Navy, was a hub of aerospace engineering and manufacturing from the 1930s to 1990s, including work on military aircraft and the Apollo moon lander. It was home to 20,000 jobs.

The groundwater contamination has been spreading a foot per day, and is now 4.3 miles long, 2.1 miles at its widest point and up to 900 feet deep, according to the DEC. It contains at least 24 contaminants, including the solvent trichloroethene, or TCE, a human carcinogen, and emerging contaminant 1,4-dioxane, a likely carcinogen that can't be removed through traditional treatment methods.

The state will give the Navy and Northrop Grumman 15 days to agree to fund the cleanup plan, or the DEC will move forward with construction and seek reimbursement later, Seggos said. He said there have been ongoing conversations with the parties.

"They can tell us, 'No, thank you very much.' Then we understand that the burden shifts to us to do the work, and then pursue them for the cost," Seggos said. "Or they can say, 'Yes, we understand that there's some potential here, we want to work out a solution with you.' 

"We don't intend to allow this to drag on in any respect. We want to hear from them. We want to hear a real answer," he said. The decision "in its final form will drive a more urgent conversation, and that's what we owe everyone in Nassau County."

Groundwater pollution from the site first closed Bethpage Water District drinking water wells in 1976. The state declared it a Superfund site in 1983.

Water districts on Friday hailed the decision by the DEC. Until recent years, the public utilities responsible for providing water in Bethpage and surrounding districts whose wells have been affected by the plume — or are in its path — complained that state regulators had not been aggressive enough.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo expressed his support for immediate action on a more aggressive cleanup plan for Bethpage, which he had advocated for in his past two State of the State addresses.

Mike Boufis, superintendent of the Bethpage Water District, said the bulk of the mass probably will be cleaned up in 20 to 25 years.

“The way the plan is laid out and the fast track that the DEC has put in place will definitely expedite the cleanup," he said.

Boufis said opposition to the plan by the Navy and Northrop Grumman is misplaced.

“Obviously there needed to be a new look and a new approach to containing and capturing and cleaning up the plume,” he said. “This is the fresh look we’ve all been looking for because what they’ve been doing for the last three, four, five decades has not worked.”

Boufis said the water district has spent $19 million in the past decade on equipment to treat water from the plume to meet federal and state standards for drinking water, and that doesn’t include expenses for operation, maintenance and monitoring. The Navy has agreed to reimburse the district for only $2.7 million of that, he said. The district expects to spend millions more on equipment and on drilling new wells away from the plume, he said.

Stan Carey, superintendent of the Massapequa Water District, which lies in the path of the plume, said the district "is very pleased the final plan is unchanged and will appropriately contain the groundwater plume from impacting our supply wells."

The state plan incorporates work already completed and planned by Northrop Grumman and the Navy to treat the contamination.

Northrop Grumman has been operating a series of five wells to contain contamination at the former site since 1998 in an attempt to keep existing contamination on-site. The company previously said in a statement that it has spent $200 million on plume cleanup and study.

The Navy, which is operating the only system set up to remove contamination outside the former facilities, estimates it has spent $131 million.

There are 11 public water supply wells contaminated by the plume, and another 16 wells threatened. Water districts have maintained that the tap water is safe to drink because their multimillion-dollar treatment systems remove contamination to state and federal drinking water standards. To prevent the plume from moving, the state plan calls for a network of about 16 extraction wells to be installed along the margins of the plume.

Inside the plume, another eight groundwater extraction wells will be installed to capture areas with higher concentrations of contaminants. 

In total, the wells will extract 17.5 million gallons of water per day, which will be treated at one of five groundwater treatment plants.

That water will be treated twice to remove volatile organic compounds — once using air stripping towers and then going through giant tanks of carbon — plus another time if necessary to remove 1,4-dioxane, a likely carcinogen used to stabilize solvents that the state is in the process of regulating.

More than half of that water will be returned to the aquifer through a planned recharge basin, expected to be 10 acres large, within Bethpage State Park. A portion of the water would be used seasonally to irrigate the park.

Some of the treated water also would be pumped into Massapequa Creek, which the state plan predicts would benefit the aquatic habitat there.

Environmental groups had expressed concern that the pumping would deplete the aquifer and allow saltwater from the Atlantic Ocean to start intruding into the freshwater drinking supply. The plan said some of those concerns are addressed by the recharge of treated water.

Seggos said there have been conversations with the Navy and Northrop Grumman about the plan, but said the state is "not backing down from the work that we have done. The only question is whether or not the polluters will be meeting us on favorable terms."

ABOUT THE PLUME

The groundwater pollution coming from the former Northrop Grumman and U.S. Navy facilities in Bethpage spreads about a foot per day, and is now 4.3 miles long, 2.1 miles at its widest point and up to 900 feet deep, according to the DEC.

It contains at least 24 contaminants, including the solvent trichloroethene, or TCE, a human carcinogen, and emerging contaminant 1,4-dioxane, a likely carcinogen that can't be removed through traditional treatment methods.

BY THE NUMBERS

The state plan calls for:

  • 24 extraction wells
  • 5 treatment plants
  • 4 recharge basins
  • 24 miles of pipes
  • Pumping and treating 17.5 million gallons of water per day
  • $585 million to construct and operate over 30 years

WHAT'S NEXT

The state is giving Northrop Grumman and the Navy 15 days to give a formal reply to its finalized plan. If they don’t agree to pay for the project, the state said it will go forward with the work and seek to recoup the money.

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