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Suffolk Water Authority to get $4M in federal funds for toxic foam cleanup at Gabreski airport

Francis S. Gabreski Air National Guard Base in

Francis S. Gabreski Air National Guard Base in Westhampton Beach on March 1, 2019.   Credit: Jessica Rotkiewicz

The federal government will reimburse the Suffolk County Water Authority more than $4 million for the costs of cleaning up toxic firefighting foam contaminants that the Department of Defense used for nearly 30 years at Francis S. Gabreski Airport, officials said.

U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and county officials announced the payment Tuesday, six months after Suffolk sued the government in a separate but related matter. The county claimed federal officials failed to negotiate reimbursement for its remediation efforts to offset damage to groundwater by the contaminants, perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA).

The county's measures in recent years have included connecting homes attached to contaminated private wells to public supplies, installing granular activated carbon filters to remove the substances from drinking water, providing bottled water and investigating the extent of the harm.

Both contaminants were detected in groundwater wells near Gabreski Airport in Westhampton Beach in 2014, and the state Department of Environmental Conservation named the airport a Superfund site in September 2016. Suffolk authorities shut down water wells and shifted more than 60 homes from private wells to public water sources.

The chemicals can harm the immune system and fetal health and development, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency. They can also cause liver damage, cancer and thyroid problems, it said.

As much as $4,022,731 will go to the county as part of the federal National Defense Authorization Act of this year, is expected to arrive in county coffers by October. The funds are part of a $20 million payout from the Air Force to local water authorities nationwide.

“We moved heaven and Earth to pass specific legislation to allow the DOD to do the right thing here: pay the Suffolk County Water Authority for the money it spent dealing with the PFOS contamination mess that others made,” Schumer said.

“I’ve long said local taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay for a mess they didn’t make, and now they won’t have to cover this $4 million worth," he aded. "The Air Force deserves credit here, too, for working with us to achieve the goal.”

Military officials at Gabreski could not be reached for comment.

Jeff Szabo, chief executive officer for the water authority, said a separate lawsuit against private manufacturers of the foam is pending but he welcomed the reimbursement from the federal government.

“We were very optimistic that the feds would be held accountable and they acknowledged their desire to make the authority whole,” he said, adding that the bulk of the water authority’s costs came from installing granular activated carbon filters in two well fields around Gabreski Airport. “This really would not have happened without Schumer. That’s a very important fact that we want to relay to the customers and residents of Suffolk County.”

News of the payment comes three years after National Guard Bureau Chief Richard P. McCoy wrote to county and water authority officials saying he thought fire training and suppression systems, which were used by the Air National Guard and Air Force at the base at Gabreski, had contaminated area drinking water wells.

His note acknowledged that the foam was used for training operations from 1970 to 1986, and in hangars from 1998 to 2011. Periodic testing of the systems would release the foam to the ground and drainage systems.

Suffolk County owns Gabreski and leases about 88.5 acres of runways, hangars and maintenance facilities to the Air National Guard, where the 106th Rescue Wing is based.

In 2018, New York State also filed a lawsuit against six companies that make firefighting foams with PFOS and PFOA.

The litigation filed in state Supreme Court in Albany claims six companies knew or should have known the harmful effects of the aqueous film-forming foam and the lawsuit sought reimbursement for the cost of cleaning up the contaminants.

The companies are 3M Company, Tyco Fire Products LP, Chemguard Inc., Buckeye Fire Equipment Company, National Foam Inc., and Kidde-Fenwal Inc.

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