Rep. Thomas Suozzi urged the House Appropriations Committee Thursday to significantly boost the federal budget for cleaning polluted former U.S. Navy sites, citing the Grumman groundwater contamination plume’s continued spread through Bethpage and beyond.
Appearing before the Appropriations defense subcommittee, Suozzi (D-Glen Cove) asked for a “monumental, but necessary” $500 million increase in the Navy’s Environmental Restoration Fund, which President Donald Trump wants to cut from $385 million this year to $335 million in 2021.
The fund covers all sites with Navy ties that still require remediation, more than 1,800 nationwide. But Suozzi said the circumstances of the Grumman plume — for which the Navy shares responsibility as part owner of facilities that Grumman operated — stand out for its contamination of Long Island's aquifer, the region’s only drinking water source.
“I’m asking you to really look at something that our community has struggled with for over 40 years,” said Suozzi, noting that his request also had the support of Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford). “It’s spreading rapidly, it’s decreased property values and it’s spread fear throughout our communities.”
Suozzi cited and entered into the record Newsday’s recent investigative series “The Grumman Plume: Decades of Deceit.” Published last month, the stories detailed a history of deceptive statements, missteps and minimization — from both Grumman and regulators — that helped slow cleanup of the groundwater pollution that has become Long Island’s most intractable environmental crisis.
“This excellent reporting, in frustrating detail, outlines decades of finger-pointing, bureaucratic delays, high-priced lawyers, engineers and misdirection, which have resulted in a four-decade-old problem that is a long way from actual remediation,” Suozzi testified.
Today, the plume stands at 4.3 miles long, 2.1 miles wide and as much as 900 feet deep in the sole-source aquifer. It contains 24 contaminants — most notably the carcinogenic solvent trichloroethylene, or TCE — that have led to taxpayers having to fund the bulk of roughly $80 million in public drinking water well treatment systems in Bethpage, South Farmingdale and parts of Seaford and Wantagh.
The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, the agency overseeing the cleanup, long endorsed plans that failed to fully contain the plume. But it currently wants the Navy and Grumman’s successor, Northrop Grumman, to spend $585 million on a comprehensive system of extraction wells and treatment plants that would finally stop its spread and, after 110 years, bring the groundwater back to drinking standards.
The polluters say they have spent more than $300 million combined to address the pollution since the 1990s. This includes Northrop Grumman's operation of a containment system at the border of its old 600-acre grounds, and the Navy's operation of a system to remove contamination from one of the most concentrated spots beyond those grounds.
But they have both opposed the newest state plan, calling it technically infeasible, not cost-effective and too disruptive to the community.
“We appreciate Rep. Suozzi’s commitment to this issue," said Tim Paynter, a Northrop Grumman spokesman. "For more than two decades we have and continue to invest in our environmental remediation efforts, and they are working, as the water districts continue to confirm the drinking water is safe.”
Suozzi also proposed that the Navy and Northrop Grumman cede their responsibility to undertake the cleanup themselves and simply pay the state and local water districts to handle it.
“Let’s just have them write a check to the local authorities so they can cut through the bureaucracy and get this site cleaned up,” said Suozzi, who previously was successful in getting the House to put back Navy restoration funds that went to the Grumman site.
Rep. Pete Visclosky (D-Ind.), the subcommittee chairman, said he couldn’t promise Suozzi that he’d meet his request to more than double that fund next year. But he said the House is considering increasing the White House’s request by at least $49 million, essentially avoiding any cut from 2020 levels.
“It’s little consolation to you at this moment,” Visclosky acknowledged.
The subcommittee’s ranking Republican, Rep. Ken Calvert of California, said he appreciated Suozzi’s passion, but “unfortunately, we have hundreds of these sites … we have them across the nation. And it’s going to cost us billions and billions of dollars.”
Suozzi replied by emphasizing that many of those other sites did not pollute the region's drinking water source.
"And it's a heavily populated area," he said. "It's not a remote facility. It's the middle of people's neighborhood."