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Officials: Long-delayed soil cleanup at Bethpage ballfield closer to start

The former ballfield at Bethpage Community Park was

The former ballfield at Bethpage Community Park was built over land that Grumman Aerospace once used to dry toxic sludges and dispose of solvent-soaked rags. Credit: Newsday / John Keating

The shuttered Bethpage Community Park ballfield, a persistent symbol of Grumman pollution, is inching closer to a long-awaited cleanup.

Final construction of a system to remove contaminants in the soil is set to begin as early as Tuesday, officials said. This month marks 18 years since the field was closed upon discovery of toxic industrial compounds, decades after Grumman had donated the land to Oyster Bay Town.

Activation of a thermal well system, which has sat dormant after the aerospace giant's successor, Northrop Grumman, installed it last year, is expected by July. The machinery to remove pollutants will run for seven to 12 months before regulators determine whether the 3.5-acre area of the park can be returned to public use.

“The public has waited many years to see this up and running,” Oyster Bay Town Supervisor Joseph Saladino said in an interview. “We want to make sure that the process is done very completely.”

Martin Brand, deputy commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Conservation, which is overseeing cleanup of the park — as well as the larger groundwater contamination plume that stemmed from former Grumman/U.S. Navy operations in Bethpage — said the technology has proved "very effective at permanently removing contaminants" from soil.

Northrop Grumman is paying for the multimillion-dollar ballfield remediation under a decision issued by the state in 2013.

"This project is a critical step in making this community whole again," Brand said in a statement.

Besides volatile organic compounds, such as the carcinogenic solvent trichloroethylene, or TCE, that the wells will extract from the soil, Northrop Grumman also must excavate dirt with toxic metals and polychlorinated biphenyls, known as PCBs. The company will begin staging next week for the final construction phase, Saladino said, noting that the coronavirus pandemic had caused delays in getting some equipment and personnel in place.

But even before the pandemic, town and state approvals of Northrop Grumman’s work plans moved slowly. The long-assumed boundaries of the contamination zone also came into question with the discovery last fall of elevated levels of TCE in soil beyond the ballfield area that Grumman, at the peak of its production in the 1940s, ’50s and early ’60s, had used as its legal dumping grounds for industrial wastes.

Saladino held a news conference in January 2019 to announce “the remediation will soon be getting underway.”

“It's taken much too long to get the approvals,” said Rep. Thomas Suozzi (D-Glen Cove), who repeatedly has urged the parties to speed cleanup. “Too many things get wrapped up in bureaucracy and lawyers.”

In a statement, Northrop Grumman spokesman Tim Paynter said the soil treatment system at the Bethpage Community Park ballfield should be operational by “midsummer.”

“Northrop Grumman is achieving another important milestone in our ongoing partnership to address environmental conditions in Bethpage as we begin constructing the next phase of our New York State-approved soil remedy in the Bethpage Park,” he said.

The park’s former ballfield, overgrown in parts and surrounded by privacy fencing, has come to represent the corporate and regulatory failures that created the larger contamination now moving underground in Bethpage and surrounding communities. Newsday featured the site in an investigation, “The Grumman Plume: Decades of Deceit,” published in February.

The stories detailed a history of deceptive statements, missteps and minimization — from both Grumman and regulators — that long slowed cleanup of the pollution that has become Long Island’s most intractable environmental crisis.

The plume — 4.3 miles long, 2.1 miles wide and as much as 900 feet deep — continues to spread in the region's sole-source aquifer, forcing local water districts to install increasingly costly systems to remove the contaminants, chiefly TCE, from what they deliver to taps. Some of the most contaminated areas of the plume stem from the pit-turned-ballfield where Grumman disposed of its wastes.

The state, which long endorsed plans that failed to fully contain the plume, last year approved a comprehensive system of extraction wells and treatment plants that would finally stop its spread and, after 110 years, bring the groundwater back to drinking standards.

It is continuing negotiations with the Navy and Northrop Grumman to enact the plan, but has said it will sue the polluters if they don't agree to do the work and pay its estimated cost of $585 million.

"Rest assured we are expediting this process to the greatest extent and will continue to keep the community informed," Brand said.

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