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U.S. Navy says in letter to state that it opposes cleanup plan for Bethpage plume

Bethpage Water District officials said the Navy's approach

Bethpage Water District officials said the Navy's approach has led to a growing plume of groundwater pollution spreading south from the center of Nassau County. Credit: Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara

The U.S. Navy is opposing the state’s $585 million proposal to fully clean up and contain groundwater pollution coming from the former Northrop Grumman and Navy-owned facilities in Bethpage and accused the state of not basing its plan on science.

State officials defended their process, while Bethpage water and town officials said the Navy and Northrop Grumman, who are responsible for Long Island's largest groundwater plume containing carcinogenic contaminants, continue to downplay concerns and advocate only for modest steps toward a cleanup.

The Navy's comments follow Northrop Grumman's response in August, with the Virginia-based aerospace and defense company calling the state's cleanup proposal "unnecessary, infeasible, and impractical" — and requesting that it be withdrawn.

Their opposition sets up a potentially fierce fight over the cleanup — and who pays for it. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has vowed that if Northrop Grumman and the Navy do not pay for the cleanup, the state will proceed with its plan and seek reimbursement from them later.

The Navy, in a Sept. 6 letter, wrote that the state's proposal for two dozen water extraction wells, miles of pipes and a series of treatment systems would interfere with remediation plans that already protect public health and fails to consider how difficult it will be to acquire the necessary land in the densely populated area. The letter, submitted as part of the state's review process, was sent with 17 pages of technical comments.

The state will not adjust its timeline of the proposed cleanup as a result of the letter, according to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. The state estimated that it will take five years to fully design and implement the plan, and 110 years to fully clean up the pollution plume.

In its broadest criticism, the Navy said the "inadequacies" in the state's more aggressive approach trace to a 2014 state law that required the state to look at fully containing the plume with a series of wells. That law “marked a dramatic turning point from a collaborative, science-based, and legally grounded remediation strategy to a reverse-engineered, predetermined outcome strategy,” Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy Karnig Ohannessian wrote to DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos.

State environmental officials said the plan is based on a $6 million study that includes groundwater modeling done by the U.S. Geological Survey.

The state "has exhaustively investigated the plume using the latest science and technology. We know now that containment and treatment are possible," Martin Brand, deputy commissioner of remediation and materials management with the DEC, said in a statement.

The 2014 law, signed by Cuomo, led to a preliminary study in 2016 that found hydraulic containment might be feasible, Brand said. In 2017, Cuomo directed the DEC to expand its investigation to conclusively determine if full hydraulic containment was feasible.

Groundwater pollution from the 600-acre cleanup site, 105 acres of which were owned by the Navy, first closed Bethpage Water District drinking water wells in 1976. The state declared it a Superfund site in 1983.

The pollution plume has been spreading a foot per day, and is now 4.3 miles long, 2.1 miles wide at its widest point and up to 900 feet deep, according to the DEC. It contains at least 24 contaminants, including the solvent trichloroethene, or TCE, a human carcinogen, and emerging contaminant 1,4-dioxane, a likely carcinogen that can't be removed through traditional treatment methods.

Local water officials said the Navy's approach has led to a growing plume of groundwater pollution spreading south from the center of Nassau County.

"They almost march standing still. They make very little headway moving down the street," said Mike Boufis, superintendent of the Bethpage Water District. "It just seems to us like another stall tactic and we find it unacceptable."

Richard Humann, president and CEO of H2M architects + engineers, Bethpage Water District's longtime consultant, said the existing treatment plan has proved inadequate, though water districts continue to treat water to state and federal standards before it's delivered to taps.

"The plume is worse than it has ever been. The program is a complete failure. And the Navy is responsible," Humann said. "Clearly, whatever they have been applying to the program has not worked, and that's indisputable. So to continue to go down this path of, 'Let us continue to do what we've been doing and hope it gets better,' isn't acceptable."

Oyster Bay Town Supervisor Joseph Saladino, who sponsored the 2014 law as an assemblyman, said, “The Navy must stop throwing up roadblocks, stop putting a price tag on the health and safety of our residents and start accepting responsibility for their actions."

Bret Bennington, a professor of geology at Hofstra University, who teaches a course on groundwater, said polluters typically advocate for less-protective — and less-expensive — measures.

He said the state plan "errs on the side of caution. When you’re dealing with a sole source aquifer like we have on Long Island, which is an incredibly precious resource, you should err on the side of caution."

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), in a statement, called the Navy's response "disappointing."

“From day one, I have pushed the polluters, Navy-Grumman, to do more aggressive and comprehensive remediation, rather than treating drinking water sources after they are contaminated by the toxic plume," he said. "It is disappointing that, in their comments, the Navy does not fully embrace the DEC’s more aggressive proposal, but I will continue to work with the state, local water authorities and others to push the polluters to accept responsibility and pursue the most effective cleanup strategy with all due speed.”

In its letter, the Navy said it would continue to study the state's proposal as part of a regular five-year review. Among the Navy's criticisms is that the state proposal "fails to adequately assess whether the cost of the proposed remedy is proportional to the overall effectiveness."

Northrop Grumman has been operating an on-site containment system of five extraction wells at the former site since 1998 in an attempt to keep existing contamination on-site. The company said in a statement it has spent $200 million on plume cleanup and study to date. The Navy, which is operating the only system set up to remove contamination outside the former facilities, estimates it has spent $131 million.

The Bethpage Water District has complained in the past that too much money had been spent on consultants and studies, rather than removing contamination or helping pay for treatment at its drinking water wells.

NEXT STEPS

The state in May released a $585 million proposal to clean up groundwater pollution from the former Northrup Grumman and Navy site in Bethpage and stop its spread. Public comment for the proposal ended July 8. Northrop Grumman opposed the plan and said the state should start again. The Navy also has submitted comments opposing the plan. Here’s what’s next:

  • The state Department of Environmental Conservation previously has said it expects to formally respond to comments about the plan by the end of the summer. The state then will issue a formal decision on the plan, known as an Amended Record of Decision. The state could move forward with its preferred proposal, modify it, select another option or start the process over.
  • The state then would formally request the Navy and/or Grumman to implement the selected plan. If they do not, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and other state officials have said the state aims to implement the plan, and seek reimbursement for their costs from the polluters.
  • The state’s report estimated that it will take five years to fully design and implement the plan, and 110 years to fully clean up the pollution plume.

ABOUT THE PLUME

  • Considered Long Island's largest groundwater pollution source, it contains at least 24 contaminants, including the solvent trichloroethene, or TCE, a human carcinogen, and the emerging contaminant 1,4-dioxane, a likely carcinogen that can't be removed through traditional treatment methods.
  • The groundwater pollution comes from the 600-acre site in Bethpage once operated by Grumman, now Northrop Grumman, 105 acres of which was owned by the Navy and leased to the company. The Bethpage site was a hub of aerospace manufacturing on Long Island from the 1930s to 1990s, including work on military aircraft and the Apollo moon lander.

SOURCES: Department of Environmental Conservation, Newsday research

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