The  plume contamination at the old Grumman facility continues to spread by about a foot a day. That is the rate at which groundwater moves south, putting the Great South Bay at risk. NewsdayTV's Tracy Tullis reports.  Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

Nearly seven decades after Nassau County health officials began to suspect contamination under the Grumman Aerospace facility in Bethpage could spread, and 26 years after the first cleanup efforts began, the plume of contamination continues to move south at the rate of about a foot a day. 

Residents, water district officials and environmental advocates have expressed frustration over the years at the pace and breadth of the cleanup, but the work has accelerated since 2022, when the state extracted an agreement from Northrop Grumman and the U.S. Navy to take on and pay for much of the project.    

But the job is complex and expensive, and experts say it’s a race against time to prevent the toxins from spreading deeper and farther into the freshwater aquifer, the sole source of Long Island's drinking water.

The discovery this month of six drums containing waste petroleum and chlorinated solvents buried in Bethpage Community Park, on property that once served as a dumping ground for the Grumman facility, fueled suspicions the area could contain more hazards, although officials said there was no immediate threat. 

“For years the water district and the town have been calling for a more comprehensive investigation and cleanup” of the park, Mike Boufis, superintendent of the Bethpage Water District, told Newsday after the discovery. “At this point, I would think they need some ground-penetrating radar” to see what else might be hidden there, he said.

The discovery came a week before the EPA's announcement of tighter standards nationwide for another drinking water contaminant, PFAS, which are found in Long Island groundwater. The chemicals break down very slowly over time, and exposure has been linked to deadly cancers, impacts to the liver and heart and immune damage to children, according to the EPA.

The pace of remediation at the park has been a source of anger for Bethpage residents — and the subject of a lawsuit by the Town of Oyster Bay — but the park is just one part of the cleanup. Basil Seggos, commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Conservation, called it “one of the most innovative and ambitious cleanups ever undertaken.” 

More than a dozen wells have been dug in “hot spots” where contaminants are highly concentrated in the plume, and at its perimeter; each well pumps half a million or more gallons of water a day, cleans it and returns it to recharge basins, where it seeps back into the groundwater.

Since the first of these wells started operating in 1998, hundreds of thousands of pounds of volatile organic chemicals, or VOCs, have been removed, according to the DEC. 

The Navy and Northrop Grumman are digging  more than a dozen new wells, to be completed between the middle of this year and 2027, and two more that are expected to start pumping this month.

The state estimates the cost of the project over the next three decades at $585 million, most to be paid by Northrop Grumman. Five years ago, the DEC estimated that full cleanup of the plume would continue for 110 years, even as the plume spreads.

From the 1940s until the 1990s, Grumman manufactured aircraft and spacecraft on a 609-acre property in Bethpage, where it dumped hazardous waste materials such as the industrial solvent trichloroethylene (TCE), a known carcinogen, into the soil. A Newsday investigation in 2020 revealed Grumman had been aware of the chemical hazard as early as the mid-1970s but did not disclose it.

In the intervening years, as the company denied responsibility for the pollution, the chemicals seeped through the soil and the toxic plume migrated miles from the original dump site and deep into the aquifer that supplies drinking water to all 3 million Long Islanders.

The front edge of the plume has reached the Southern State Parkway, according to Richard Humann, president and CEO of H2M architects and engineers, which has consulted for the Bethpage Water District for decades.

“If they had taken a more aggressive approach 20 years ago, the plume would not be as broad as it is today,” Humann said.

Cleanup began more than 25 years ago.

“There were too many years of denial,” said Gina McGovern, who has lived in Bethpage for nearly 30 years. McGovern recalled attending meetings years ago at which Grumman representatives seemed to talk primarily about measuring the plume.

“I thought, stop measuring it and start cleaning it,” she told Newsday.

Northrop Grumman said in a statement on April 5 that it has been working with the state DEC and the U.S. Navy “for over 30 years to develop and implement scientifically sound strategies to remediate groundwater deep below Bethpage,” and the company was committed to protecting “the health of the community and the environment.”

The cleanup so far is small comfort to those who developed cancers after living near the Grumman site.

“We're the people that have been forgotten about,” said Pamela Carlucci, 72, who has metastatic breast cancer. 

There has been just one study of Bethpage's cancer rates, in 2013, which didn't find higher than normal numbers, although the study noted the difficulty of linking apparent cancer clusters to a particular source.

The plume contaminants compelled water districts serving the area — Bethpage Water District, South Farmingdale Water District and New York American Water — to install expensive treatment plants at six different wellheads to deliver safe drinking water to customers.

Bethpage Water’s $18 million treatment facility — built with funding raised through borrowing and then recouped through a lawsuit against Northrop Grumman — monitors 19 volatile organic chemicals and removes them to non-detectable levels. It also treats for 1,4-dioxane, a chemical that has been used in industrial solvents and is considered a likely carcinogen by the EPA.

The South Farmingdale Water District has two treatment facilities, funded through state grants and a lawsuit settlement with the Navy and Northrop Grumman. One has been operating for several years, and the second is due for completion early next year.

Francis Koch, superintendent of the water district, said he wasn't wholly satisfied with the pace of the plume cleanup effort. “Do we wish it would go quicker? Yes. Are we happy that it’s actually being done at all? Yes.,” Koch told Newsday.

Officials at water districts south of the plume perimeter are watching how quickly the network of extraction wells can pump and clean, fearing their wells may not be spared.

Massapequa Water District wells have are not yet affected, according to Kevin Reilly, district superintendent. But the district is working closely with the DEC to monitor the plume’s southward creep, Reilly said, and “all signs show that it’s on its way.”

Boufis, of the Bethpage Water District, said the big question is how quickly the plume can be contained.

“You definitely don’t want it in the Great South Bay, where it will impact the marine life,” Boufis said.

Nearly seven decades after Nassau County health officials began to suspect contamination under the Grumman Aerospace facility in Bethpage could spread, and 26 years after the first cleanup efforts began, the plume of contamination continues to move south at the rate of about a foot a day. 

Residents, water district officials and environmental advocates have expressed frustration over the years at the pace and breadth of the cleanup, but the work has accelerated since 2022, when the state extracted an agreement from Northrop Grumman and the U.S. Navy to take on and pay for much of the project.    

But the job is complex and expensive, and experts say it’s a race against time to prevent the toxins from spreading deeper and farther into the freshwater aquifer, the sole source of Long Island's drinking water.

The discovery this month of six drums containing waste petroleum and chlorinated solvents buried in Bethpage Community Park, on property that once served as a dumping ground for the Grumman facility, fueled suspicions the area could contain more hazards, although officials said there was no immediate threat. 

WHAT TO KNOW

  • Twenty-six years after cleanup efforts began at the old Grumman Aerospace facility in Bethpage, a plume of underground chemical contamination continues to move south at the rate of about a foot a day. 
  • Residents, water district officials and others have expressed frustration over the years at the pace of the cleanup, but work has accelerated since 2022.    
  • Experts say it’s a race to prevent the toxins from spreading deeper and farther into the freshwater aquifer, the sole source of Long Island's drinking water.

“For years the water district and the town have been calling for a more comprehensive investigation and cleanup” of the park, Mike Boufis, superintendent of the Bethpage Water District, told Newsday after the discovery. “At this point, I would think they need some ground-penetrating radar” to see what else might be hidden there, he said.

The discovery came a week before the EPA's announcement of tighter standards nationwide for another drinking water contaminant, PFAS, which are found in Long Island groundwater. The chemicals break down very slowly over time, and exposure has been linked to deadly cancers, impacts to the liver and heart and immune damage to children, according to the EPA.

The pace of remediation at the park has been a source of anger for Bethpage residents — and the subject of a lawsuit by the Town of Oyster Bay — but the park is just one part of the cleanup. Basil Seggos, commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Conservation, called it “one of the most innovative and ambitious cleanups ever undertaken.” 

More than a dozen wells have been dug in “hot spots” where contaminants are highly concentrated in the plume, and at its perimeter; each well pumps half a million or more gallons of water a day, cleans it and returns it to recharge basins, where it seeps back into the groundwater.

Since the first of these wells started operating in 1998, hundreds of thousands of pounds of volatile organic chemicals, or VOCs, have been removed, according to the DEC. 

The Navy and Northrop Grumman are digging  more than a dozen new wells, to be completed between the middle of this year and 2027, and two more that are expected to start pumping this month.

The state estimates the cost of the project over the next three decades at $585 million, most to be paid by Northrop Grumman. Five years ago, the DEC estimated that full cleanup of the plume would continue for 110 years, even as the plume spreads.

How did this happen?

Undated handout photo of Grumman WW II F4F-4 Wildcats. Credit: Handout

From the 1940s until the 1990s, Grumman manufactured aircraft and spacecraft on a 609-acre property in Bethpage, where it dumped hazardous waste materials such as the industrial solvent trichloroethylene (TCE), a known carcinogen, into the soil. A Newsday investigation in 2020 revealed Grumman had been aware of the chemical hazard as early as the mid-1970s but did not disclose it.

In the intervening years, as the company denied responsibility for the pollution, the chemicals seeped through the soil and the toxic plume migrated miles from the original dump site and deep into the aquifer that supplies drinking water to all 3 million Long Islanders.

The front edge of the plume has reached the Southern State Parkway, according to Richard Humann, president and CEO of H2M architects and engineers, which has consulted for the Bethpage Water District for decades.

“If they had taken a more aggressive approach 20 years ago, the plume would not be as broad as it is today,” Humann said.

Cleanup began more than 25 years ago.

“There were too many years of denial,” said Gina McGovern, who has lived in Bethpage for nearly 30 years. McGovern recalled attending meetings years ago at which Grumman representatives seemed to talk primarily about measuring the plume.

“I thought, stop measuring it and start cleaning it,” she told Newsday.

Northrop Grumman said in a statement on April 5 that it has been working with the state DEC and the U.S. Navy “for over 30 years to develop and implement scientifically sound strategies to remediate groundwater deep below Bethpage,” and the company was committed to protecting “the health of the community and the environment.”

The cleanup so far is small comfort to those who developed cancers after living near the Grumman site.

“We're the people that have been forgotten about,” said Pamela Carlucci, 72, who has metastatic breast cancer. 

There has been just one study of Bethpage's cancer rates, in 2013, which didn't find higher than normal numbers, although the study noted the difficulty of linking apparent cancer clusters to a particular source.

Is the drinking water safe?

Bethpage Water District Superintendent Mike Boufis at the water treatment plant on Motor Lane in Bethpage in 2019. Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

The plume contaminants compelled water districts serving the area — Bethpage Water District, South Farmingdale Water District and New York American Water — to install expensive treatment plants at six different wellheads to deliver safe drinking water to customers.

Bethpage Water’s $18 million treatment facility — built with funding raised through borrowing and then recouped through a lawsuit against Northrop Grumman — monitors 19 volatile organic chemicals and removes them to non-detectable levels. It also treats for 1,4-dioxane, a chemical that has been used in industrial solvents and is considered a likely carcinogen by the EPA.

The South Farmingdale Water District has two treatment facilities, funded through state grants and a lawsuit settlement with the Navy and Northrop Grumman. One has been operating for several years, and the second is due for completion early next year.

Francis Koch, superintendent of the water district, said he wasn't wholly satisfied with the pace of the plume cleanup effort. “Do we wish it would go quicker? Yes. Are we happy that it’s actually being done at all? Yes.,” Koch told Newsday.

Officials at water districts south of the plume perimeter are watching how quickly the network of extraction wells can pump and clean, fearing their wells may not be spared.

Massapequa Water District wells have are not yet affected, according to Kevin Reilly, district superintendent. But the district is working closely with the DEC to monitor the plume’s southward creep, Reilly said, and “all signs show that it’s on its way.”

Boufis, of the Bethpage Water District, said the big question is how quickly the plume can be contained.

“You definitely don’t want it in the Great South Bay, where it will impact the marine life,” Boufis said.

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