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Decades of Grumman, Navy inaction before Calverton wells contaminated, documents show

Suffolk residents spoke with Newsday's Chelsea Irizarry on Monday. They're unhappy with the inaction regarding pollution from the former Grumman site in Calverton. Credit: Morgan Campbell, Howard Schnapp; Photo Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

Groundwater contamination spreading from 6,000 acres in Calverton where Grumman once fueled and tested U.S. Navy jets is threatening the Peconic River and private drinking wells — after decades of inaction by the aerospace giant and its military partner, according to advocates and documents examined by Newsday.

Court records newly uncovered by Newsday show that Grumman was aware at least 35 years ago that pollution generated by its work for the Navy had the potential to migrate below the surface in a wide area that includes the Peconic, which feeds fresh water into the region’s estuary.

That potential is being realized today in the form of contaminants, known as PFAS chemicals, found in elevated levels in groundwater at the southern boundary of the site, not far from homes that draw water from private wells.

The Navy, which owned the land and has sole cleanup responsibility, revealed in November that testing conducted in 2016 and 2017 had discovered higher levels of emerging contaminants than it previously had acknowledged. This month, the Suffolk County Health Department disclosed that 14 of 95 private wells it had tested south of the site showed the presence of some PFAS chemicals, with four exceeding new state standards — one by nearly 10 times.

The inaction as pollution spread is similar to what occurred 40 miles west in Bethpage, at a Grumman and Navy-owned facility there, records show.

As Newsday reported in a February investigation, The Grumman Plume: Decades of Deceit, Grumman long knew that they were polluting the groundwater in Bethpage but kept crucial information from the public. The company and Navy, until a landmark agreement this month, also consistently balked at the costliest, most-complete cleanups.

14 of 95 Private wells tested south of the site that showed the presence of PFAS chemicals

In Calverton, the data suggests that the contamination plume has spread beyond the one-mile radius inside which the Navy has agreed to do its own groundwater testing, according to Stan Carey, past chairman and board member of the Long Island Water Conference and a hamlet resident.

Pollution can travel through the region’s sandy aquifer at a rate of one foot per day, he noted, meaning that chemicals may have traveled more than two miles since 1986, the year that documents show Grumman knew about groundwater contamination.

At least 14 homes along River Road in Calverton should be connected to public water, Carey said, while the risk of exposure may extend to several dozen more. He said the Navy should perform more extensive testing to track the plume’s wider migration.

"They’ve refused to do the proper delineation and refused to hook the homes up for public water," Carey said.

David Todd, a Navy spokesman, acknowledged the agency had found elevated PFAS levels along the southeastern border of its former property, which Grumman abandoned in the mid-1990s after once employing 3,000 people there.

"Given the direction of groundwater flow in that area, no private drinking water wells exist down-gradient of those detections," he said, using a term that describes the natural movement of groundwater, which in that area is south/southeast, according to hydrological studies.

Todd did not comment directly on contamination found in the wells recently tested by Suffolk. But he said private wells within a mile of PFAS releases on the old Grumman grounds that the Navy presumed to be in the groundwater path have not shown elevated levels of pollution.

"The Navy remains committed to its PFAS cleanup responsibilities ... and will continue to let the data and the science dictate the scope of the investigation and remediation."

David Todd, Navy spokesman

"The Navy remains committed to its PFAS cleanup responsibilities at NWIRP Calverton and will continue to let the data and the science dictate the scope of the investigation and remediation," Todd said.

Environmentalists and advocates say some of the wells tested by Suffolk could be in the path of contamination from other areas of the Calverton site, particularly on the western side. They question whether the full extent of Grumman's pollution-causing activities has ever been fully known or disclosed, given the company's history at what was its primary manufacturing hub in Bethpage.

"What were they getting away with here that nobody was seeing?" asked Kelly McClinchy, who lives about a mile south of the Calverton property and is a leading advocate for additional testing and transparency.

Similar patterns

In Bethpage, a plume of groundwater contamination steadily spread for decades from under Grumman’s 600-acre grounds and now measures more than four miles long and two miles wide. The state Department of Environmental Conservation, which oversees the cleanup there, announced Dec. 21 that the Navy and Grumman's successor, Northrop Grumman, have agreed to fully contain and clean up the plume after 40 years of downplaying, dismissing and minimizing risks.

The histories of the Bethpage and Calverton contaminations show similar patterns.

Seven years ago, for example, U.S. District Court Judge Katherine B. Forrest concluded that Grumman knew for decades that hazardous waste disposal areas on the Calverton site could seep chlorinated solvents and jet fuel into a toxic plume.

"By 1986, and continuing uninterruptedly until Northrop Grumman left Calverton, certain areas … were identified as contaminated, including groundwater contamination, and it was noted that the groundwater had a migration pathway to the Peconic River and Bay," Forrest wrote in a 2013 decision whose findings about Calverton have never been reported.

In the case — which centered on whether Grumman provided timely notice to its insurers — Forrest also wrote that Grumman "was aware that there was sufficient contamination" to trigger potential liability as early as 1992.

That’s when an environmental consultant working for the Navy cited the "high possibility of a threat to nearby drinking water well(s) by a threat of migration of hazardous substance in groundwater."

Yet, Forrest wrote, Grumman "declined to participate" in initial environmental investigations and said its responsibilities ended when it vacated the site in 1996.

Grumman "made a conscious determination to try and maintain ignorance and then use that ignorance as an excuse."

U.S. District Court Judge Katherine B. Forrest

"Taken together, on their face, the documents demonstrate that Grumman chose a particular path in connection with Calverton, which this Court will refer to as the ‘Ostrich Defense,’" Forrest wrote. "That is, it made a conscious determination to try and maintain ignorance and then use that ignorance as an excuse."

Records in the court case suggest that the company feared liability for the contamination as late as 2008, after the Navy threatened a lawsuit to recoup its investigation and cleanup costs, which then were $21.3 million. There is no record of the suit being filed.

Sole responsibility

While the two continue to share responsibility for pollution caused by Grumman’s Bethpage facility, the Navy is solely handling the Calverton cleanup under federal permitting for hazardous waste management sites, which state environmental conservation officials monitor for compliance. Calverton is not on the state Superfund list of polluted old industrial grounds.

The site was a government-owned, contractor-operated facility from the early 1950s until it closed in February 1996. Grumman primarily used it for the development, assembly and testing of naval combat aircraft, though operations also included paint shops, machine shops and degreasing and storage of oil and chemicals, according to a Navy history of the site.

In 1998, the majority of the land within the developed section of the facility was conveyed to the Town of Riverhead for economic redevelopment. Other areas have been converted into parkland and open space.

Lora Fly, remedial project manager for the Naval Facilities Engineering Systems Command's mid-Atlantic region, said in a statement that the Navy has spent more than $45 million on Calverton cleanup activities since 1991, including $1.2 million this fiscal year.

She declined to comment on how the Navy came to take full responsibility for the pollution there, referring questions about Northrop Grumman’s efforts to Northrop Grumman.

"The Navy’s commitment to clean up of [Naval Weapons Industrial Reserve Plant] Calverton is an enduring one: We’ll be here for the duration," Fly said.

"Over 25 years ago, before the time Grumman terminated its lease at the Navy’s Calverton site, Grumman completed its environmental activities."

Tim Paynter, Northrop Grumman spokesman

Northrop Grumman declined to answer questions about what it has spent at Calverton and whether it ever paid the Navy for some of its costs, as well as about Forrest’s opinion that it exhibited "ignorance" to the contamination there.

"The Navy has for decades been investigating and mitigating environmental concerns related to its former Calverton site," Northrop Grumman spokesman Tim Paynter said in a statement. "We understand those efforts are ongoing and suggest you consult the Navy for additional information. Over 25 years ago, before the time Grumman terminated its lease at the Navy’s Calverton site, Grumman completed its environmental activities. It did so in coordination with the U.S. Navy, the State of New York and local governmental authorities."

New chemicals of concern emerge

Forrest’s decision focused on Calverton pollution caused by the solvents and fuel. But as those seeped down into the groundwater, so too did the PFAS chemicals — well before those emerged as toxic dangers.

PFAS chemicals are known as "forever chemicals," because they don’t naturally break down. Scientists have linked the substances to negative health effects, such as increased cholesterol and increased risk of kidney and testicular cancer.

They include perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), used in nonstick and stain-resistant products and once common in electrical wire insulation and paint and varnish, as well as perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), which is used in firefighting foams.

Grumman also conducted fire training exercises in Calverton.

New York this year enacted a standard of 10 parts per trillion for the emerging contaminants, among the strictest in the country, and four times as strict as federal regulations. The Navy’s 2016 and 2017 tests detected PFAS chemicals in concentrations as high as 36 times New York’s new standard.

Grumman’s Calverton operations took place in a sparsely populated area of protected woodlands near the Peconic River, where many homes pump their own drinking water instead of getting it from a public utility. In Bethpage, where the primary contaminant is the carcinogenic solvent trichloroethlyne, or TCE, the company was intertwined with the suburban community around its gates.

Though these details differ, Long Island environmental advocates said the inaction and ignored warnings detailed in the court records about Calverton fit what happened to the west.

"This is a pattern of deceit and deception that literally could make the public sick," Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, who sits on a Navy-run citizens advisory board and has fought the Navy’s refusal to test private wells beyond a mile from the original source of pollution, said in response to Newsday's reporting.

"It's not rocket science. People's drinking water might be contaminated. And they need clean water."

Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment

"It’s not rocket science. People’s drinking water might be contaminated. And they need clean water," Esposito added.

Contamination from Grumman’s Bethpage operations first shut down a public well in 1976. In Calverton, the Suffolk County Health Department told county legislators about the 1992 Navy report shortly after it was released, but the contamination garnered little public attention.

It wasn’t until 2009 that many took notice, after the county discovered that the solvent and jet fuel plume, about a third of a mile wide, just south of the site, was larger and more concentrated than initially believed.

At first, the Navy said the plume might not need remediation because it wasn’t close to public water wells. Eventually, under increasing pressure from residents and elected officials, the Navy installed a "fence line" treatment system that has prevented further fuel and solvent contaminants from leaving the property, but, environmentalists charge, has done little to address what may have already escaped.

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who helped push the Navy into installing the fence line system and since has pushed it to expand PFAS testing and pay for public water connections, said in a statement that the disclosures from the 2013 court case found by Newsday were "deeply disturbing."

"Given the new evidence that they have known for over 30 years that there was a risk to the drinking water of their neighbors, it’s become painfully clear the Navy’s response may well have been negligent, and I’m demanding an immediate connection to public water for those impacted homeowners," Schumer said.

For 20 years, lifelong Manorville resident Ron Martz has been trying to get homes in the area connected to public water supplies because of concerns about pollution from the former Grumman operations. Though there’s been no government health studies, he has wondered about cases of cancer in the neighborhood, and whether there’s a connection with the water.

When the county tests came back last month, his private well water had the highest PFOS detection in the area — at 98.5 parts per trillion, nearly 10 times the state’s drinking water limit.

"I was really shocked," he said.

Noting past Navy statements that the southern plume might clean itself up, McClinchy said she’s always viewed the agency as favoring a hands-off approach to anything that escaped the actual fence line system it installed.

"They’re just going to let it keep moving down into the Peconic River and call it a day," she said.

PFOA and PFOS

  • Human-made fluorinated organic chemicals that are part of a larger group of chemicals referred to as perfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs).
  • PFOA and PFOS have been the most extensively produced and studied of these chemicals.
  • They have been used to make products resistant to water, grease and stains, including: carpets, clothing, fabrics for furniture, paper packaging for food and other materials like cookware. They have also been used for firefighting foam at airfields and in a number of industrial processes.
  • According to the EPA, exposure to PFOA and PFOS may result in adverse health effects, including testicular and kidney cancers, liver damage and developmental effects to fetuses or breastfed infants, such as low birth weight and accelerated puberty.

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