Northrop Grumman and the U.S. Navy will pay Bethpage Water District $49 million to treat groundwater contamination, a landmark agreement that rectifies decades of the polluters leaving taxpayers with the bulk of costs to access drinkable water.
The parties filed a consent judgment Monday in federal court in Central Islip that, once approved, settles pending litigation and provides the district with enough money to retire debt from its construction of advanced treatment systems, operate them for years to come and construct a new supply well outside of the toxic Grumman plume.
About $29 million comes from Northrop Grumman, whose predecessor, Grumman Aerospace, dumped dangerous chemicals at its Bethpage facility to such an extent that it spawned Long Island’s worst environmental crisis: a plume now stretching more than 4 miles long, 2 miles wide and 900 feet deep in the local groundwater. The Navy, which owned a portion of the old manufacturing site, will provide the remaining $20 million.
“It’s a start. One that’s probably 35 years late,” said John Coumatos, chairman of Bethpage Water District’s board of commissioners. “But at least we have some equal footing for once. It’s not David and Goliath anymore.”
The deal is separate from one announced by then-Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in 2020 — and still not finalized — that requires Northrop Grumman and the Navy to provide $406 million to contain and ultimately eliminate the plume through a series of contaminant extraction wells.
This, on the other hand, provides direct relief to the water district serving about 33,000, whose budget has more than doubled since 2014 as it has built increasingly complex systems to remove the two dozen chemicals that remain in the plume. Those include the long-known carcinogenic metal degreaser trichloroethylene (TCE) and the “emerging contaminant” 1,4-dioxane, before they reach taps.
The systems at three district plants within the plume have either been upgraded to handle carbon removal of elevated TCE levels or newly constructed with an oxidation process specifically to capture 1,4-dioxane, a solvent stabilizer also found in household products, which came under state regulation in 2020. Northrop Grumman will take over one of the plants as part of its plume cleanup, while the district plans for the new supply well.
“It’s an emotional moment,” longtime Bethpage Water District Superintendent Michael Boufis said. “It felt like we’ve been on the battlefield. I know that’s a little dramatic, but how many times can you get knocked down and try to pick yourself up?”
While the Navy has backed recent Bethpage Water projects, including $17 million for upgrades at one plant, Northrop Grumman hasn’t paid for any since the 1990s. A decade ago, the company got a water district lawsuit dismissed by arguing that district officials, whom they engaged in lengthy negotiations over treatment upgrade costs, waited too long to sue.
The district was forced to pay for the upgrades itself. In 2014, it had a $6.4 million budget. Today, it is $13.4 million. Over that time, water rates have increased between 25% and 100%, depending on usage.
After many years of avoiding liability, Boufis said the Navy and Northrop Grumman more recently have exhibited a commitment to helping the community. Newsday in 2020 published an investigation, The Grumman Plume: Decades of Deceit, that detailed the history of false and misleading statements, missteps and minimization that aided the pollution’s spread.
“Northrop Grumman is pleased to have reached this agreement with the Bethpage Water District and the Navy, which furthers our continued cooperative efforts to protect public health and the environment in Bethpage and the surrounding community,” company spokesman Vic Beck said in a statement. “This agreement builds on the company’s long-standing partnership with New York State, the Navy and other stakeholders, and our extensive efforts over the past decades to address impacts to soil and groundwater from historical operations supporting our national defense. We look forward to court approval of this agreement.”
Spokespeople for the Navy did not immediately return requests for comment.
The Navy is expected to provide its $20 million shortly after the consent judgment is approved by a judge. Northrop Grumman will make a $10 million payment within 60 days of approval of this deal and the separate one with the state, will pay $14 million by next January and the final $5 million by January 2024.
“The goal of this is to resolve all of this for all time, and to make sure that Bethpage taxpayers are not footing the bill,” said Matt Edling, an attorney who helped negotiate the deal for Bethpage Water District. “This is a big deal.”