The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation has listed Long Island MacArthur Airport in Ronkonkoma as a Superfund site after “significant” levels of chemicals were detected. NewsdayTV’s Cecilia Dowd reports. Credit: Newsday/Howard Schnapp

State environmental officials have designated Long Island MacArthur Airport in Ronkonkoma as a Superfund site after detecting "significant" chemical contamination in groundwater and soil.

The Department of Environmental Conservation on Friday confirmed it found perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also known as PFAS, "at levels that exceed applicable standards," a spokesperson said Friday. The site was listed as a possible Superfund site in 2018 over concerns that past use and storage of perfluorooctane sulfonate, or PFOS, a chemical found in firefighting foams used at airports, could have contaminated drinking water supplies. 

The substances, also known as "forever chemicals" because they don’t break down easily, have been linked to immune system problems, cancers and other health impacts, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

State DEC Executive Deputy Commissioner Sean Mahar, in a virtual news conference Friday afternoon, said there will be a "full investigation" at the airport, which "has site-related contaminants" that need to be cleaned up. "We have to declare it a significant threat because of what's there." 

WHAT TO KNOW

  • Long Island MacArthur Airport in Ronkonkoma has been designated as a state Superfund site after detecting "significant" chemical contamination in groundwater and soil there. 
  • A spokesperson for the Town of Islip, which owns the airport, said "there is no health concern," and public drinking water supplies, which are closely monitored, "continue to meet standards." 
  • The state DEC is overseeing "a comprehensive investigation to define the full nature and extent of the contamination" and will "take appropriate action to address" the issue. 

The listing of the Superfund site "is just a formality in this process," Mahar said. "That gives us more tools in the toolbox to hold the responsible parties accountable, ensure an appropriate investigation is undertaken, and the appropriate cleanup measures are advanced."

"There isn't a concern right now for any public exposure to this," he said, adding that residents can safely use water from public wells. 

State environmental officials have listed Long Island MacArthur Airport in Ronkonkoma as a Superfund site, saying they have found "significant" chemical contamination in groundwater and soil in the area. Credit: Google Maps; New York State Department of Environmental Conservation

Islip: 'There is no health concern'

MacArthur Airport is owned by the Town of Islip. A town spokesperson told Newsday in a statement that "there is no health concern," and public drinking water supplies, which are closely monitored, "continue to meet standards." The town declined to discuss potential plans for remediation. 

The town is working with the state DEC and Suffolk County Water Authority "in an ongoing effort to address the impacts of PFOS and PFOA, which began in the 1970s with the military use of firefighting foam, and continued with airline use until 2000," the spokesperson said. 

The DEC is negotiating an agreement with Islip to clean up the site and will continue to keep the community informed, Mahar said. Once the investigation is complete, a remedial action plan will be developed and put out for public comment.

Timothy J. Hopkins, chief legal officer for the Suffolk County Water Authority, in an email statement, said: “All SCWA wells in the vicinity of MacArthur Airport have drinking water treatment systems installed that remove PFAS contaminants to non-detectable levels.” 

'This actually is not surprising'

Suffolk County Water Authority chairman Patrick Halpin said Friday while "a Superfund site is never good news, frankly, it's not surprising, considering the industrial development that has occurred on Long Island over the decades." 

Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, said PFAS are an emerging contaminant “we now know more about … than we did even just 10 years ago.”

“This actually is not surprising," she said. "Airports across the nation are struggling right now with a number of fuel spills. But also with fire training centers across Long Island and New York state, many of them are being declared Superfund sites because of the contamination in the foam ... That foam now is being transitioned to foam that does not have the toxic chemical of PFAS. Many of these training facilities are now turning in their old foam to the DEC for it to be properly disposed of.”

“The good news with this chemical is that we do have the technology to filter it,” she added. 

PFAS chemicals, including those used in nonstick and stain-resistant materials and firefighting foam, have been found in hundreds of public and private wells on the Island since 2016. PFOS and PFOA are part of the classification of chemicals known as PFAS.

New York State in 2020 set drinking water standards for PFOS and PFOA, the most studied PFAS compounds, at 10 parts per trillion, though many water providers have asked for extensions to implement treatments. The amount of PFOS and PFOA permitted in drinking water is so low that it is the equivalent of 10 grains of sand in an Olympic-size swimming pool. In 2022, the EPA reduced its proposed guidelines for the two chemicals to levels that are lower than state standards and below current detection ability. 

David Nadler, a New York Institute of Technology faculty member who has conducted research on ways to safely break down PFAS, said the chemical has been in use as far back as the mid-20th century and can be found in some common products such as water-resistant fabrics or stain-resistant carpeting.

“It's been there a long time. We just happen to realize it now,” he said. “Has it affected anyone? Well, that's where we're lacking in long term studies.”

DEC status concerns residents

A DEC spokesperson said 723 residents near the airport were mailed letters about the Superfund site status. Some told Newsday they're concerned and have questions about what exactly the Superfund status means for their water supply.

Stephanie Poliey, 27, of Holbrook, said she’s not “too worried” yet, so long as her water supply is safe to drink and use, but she needs more information.

Poliey's neighbor, Alex Nestasia, 51, has lived in Holbrook for nearly 20 years and raised his three kids near the airport.

“To find out some information like this, it's very scary,” he said, holding a copy of the DEC letter.

Six private wells have been tested, Mahar said. Alternate water supplies were offered to property owners if PFAS concentrations were above the state’s drinking water standards. 

Most homeowners in the area surrounding the airport are serviced by public water, said Mahar, which the DEC has already screened for potential contaminants, along with private wells in the area. 

"Right now we have a good handle on those wells that were impacted. They were provided treatment," he said. 

Mitch Pally, chairman of the funding arm created to oversee the Midway Crossing air terminal and convention center proposal in Ronkonkoma, said he doesn’t know how the airport's Superfund designation may impact the $2.8 billion project. The project, among other things, will connect a new air terminal at MacArthur to Ronkonkoma’s Long Island Rail Road station. He noted, however, that the project is not on airport property.

The State Superfund Site program, according to DEC website, aims to identify suspected sites with hazardous waste and make sure they're properly addressed. 

The DEC investigates sites where hazardous waste may have been disposed of with the goal to determine potential threats to public health or the environment.

The party determined responsible for the contamination usually oversees cleanup. If a responsible party can't be found or they are unable or unwilling to fund an investigation, it's paid for by the state using money from the 1986 Environmental Quality Bond Act, also known as the "State Superfund."

Gov. Kathy Hochul proposed a new program in her 2023 State of the State address to offer financial assistance to municipalities to investigate sources of contamination and remediate affected sites. New York is also increasing investment in clean water infrastructure to reduce the impact of contaminants like the forever chemicals detected at MacArthur on the state's water resources. 

Mahar encouraged residents to sign up for the DEC listserv and said people should feel free to reach out with questions.

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