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Gov. Cuomo unveils plans to study Long Island drinking water

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, far left, discusses groundwater

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, far left, discusses groundwater cleanup for Long Island and the rest of the state at Stony Brook University Thursday, Feb. 18, 2016. From Cuomo's left, state Senate Minority Leader John Flanagan, Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone and Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano. Credit: James Carbone

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo pledged Thursday to spend $6 million on a study of Long Island’s aquifer system — the sole source for area drinking water considered among the most contaminated in New York.

The study was among several environmental initiatives announced by Cuomo at Stony Brook University — including deployment of rapid-response teams to investigate reports of contaminated water supplies statewide — as part of an effort to reduce groundwater pollutants on Long Island and the rest of New York.

One of Cuomo’s initiatives was already in place Thursday as testing of groundwater near a decades-old Bethpage plume began in response to the governor’s order last month.

The state efforts underscore the pressing need to tackle Long Island’s lasting legacy of landfills and long-shuttered manufacturing plants — chemicals seeping through sandy soil and into the aquifer system.

“One of the main environmental issues which is emerging is the quality of the drinking water ...,” Cuomo said at the university’s Center of Excellence in Wireless and Information Technology. “The aquifer on Long Island is a priceless asset and we want to protect it.”

Cuomo was flanked by Nassau and Suffolk county executives, state elected officials and New York’s acting environmental commissioner, Basil Seggos.

The governor said besides terrorism, environmental issues are among the hardest to tackle. He cited the challenges posed by manufacturing solvents seeping into Long Island aquifers, contaminants discovered in sources upstate and the ongoing issue of lead contamination of drinking water in Flint, Michigan.

“Long Island is especially sensitive when it comes to the environment,” Cuomo said.

The aquifers beneath Long Island are designated “sole source” because they provide the only supply of water to the area. But decades of contamination have left them among the state’s most polluted.

More than 250 state and federal Superfund cleanup sites are in Nassau and Suffolk counties, vestiges of the region’s aerospace and manufacturing industries. Contaminants also come from landfills, drycleaners and the agriculture industry.

Polluted water has been documented at nearly 90 percent of those sites and groundwater plumes are evident at one-third of all sites, according to a Newsday analysis.

“We are now suffering from, literally, the stain of the manufacturing era,” Cuomo said.

At the end of January, Cuomo stepped into the fray over Bethpage groundwater plumes that flow as far as three miles from a site used by the Navy, and what is now Northrop Grumman, for aircraft manufacturing. Contamination goes back to the 1940s and the sites were listed to a state hazardous waste registry in 1980. They are subject to several soil and groundwater cleanup plans.

But local politicians and water districts say the plume puts drinking water supplies for 250,000 people at risk.

In November, the Massapequa Water District requested access to five to seven plume monitoring wells to conduct analysis that could essentially fingerprint the contamination, focusing on the carcinogenic solvent trichloroethylene, and the unregulated compound 1,4-Dioxane.

Navy and Northrop Grumman officials responded, saying sampling at more wells would give a better picture of contamination. They also had questions about the science behind the testing. Sen. Chuck Schumer called it a stall tactic and two days later Cuomo ordered the testing.

“When the federal government said ‘You can’t test’ it made everyone suspicious, understandably,” Cuomo said.

Sampling at the sites began Thursday and was expected to take two days. Results will be available within weeks followed by testing at additional wells.

“Within a couple of months we’ll have a really good sense” of the contamination, Seggos said.

Massapequa Water District Superintendent Stan Carey said the testing was appreciated.

“This plume has plagued us for decades and finally we have a sense of urgency coming from the governor,” Carey said. “We are hopeful that it will step up the actions of the Navy and Grumman.”

Cuomo said the rapid response team of state environmental authorities will look at regulated and unregulated contaminants, like perfluorooctanoic acid, which has been found in drinking water supplies in Hoosick Falls upstate. Strengthening state drinking water standards is also planned.

The high-level groundwater study will examine Long Island’s series of aquifers, Cuomo said. The aquifers have been examined in a piecemeal manner but not comprehensively.

Scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey’s Coram office will work on the study with officials from the state as well as Suffolk and Nassau counties

“There are just some areas where we need some ground truth to make the models better,” said Stephen Terracciano, New York Water Science Center Chief for U.S. Geological Survey in Coram.

The hope is to create a groundwater-flow model showing signs of salt water intrusion, the presence of contaminants and the effects of surface water on the system.

It will also examine water that can safely be withdrawn from the aquifers.

Sarah Meyland, director of the Center for Water Resources Management at New York Institute of Technology, was encouraged by the study.

“We definitely want science to guide but we definitely want action to follow,” said Meyland.

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