At least six 55-gallon drums were discovered buried in Oyster Bay, raising concerns about the extent of toxic pollution at the one-time Grumman Aerospace dumping grounds. NewsdayTV's Ken Buffa reports. Credit: NewsdayTv

This story was reported by Paul LaRocco, Tracy Tullis and Joseph Ostapiuk. It was written by LaRocco.

Large concrete-encased chemical drums have been unearthed beneath Bethpage Community Park in recent days, raising new concerns about the extent of toxic pollution at the onetime Grumman Aerospace dumping grounds.  

Contractors with Grumman’s corporate successor, Northrop Grumman, discovered six 55-gallon drums roughly 7 feet underground as they drilled a well Thursday to monitor an existing soil treatment system at the public park, Oyster Bay Town Supervisor Joseph Saladino told Newsday on Tuesday.

Environmental regulators were notified and the drums’ contents are being tested, but some contained flammable chemicals and at least one was punctured, Saladino said. The previously undisclosed drums —  dubbed a "secret burial" by the supervisor — were found between the 18-acre town park’s long-shuttered ballfield and its fenced-off skate park. 

“We discovered Grumman’s graveyard for contamination,” Saladino said. “These drums were encased in concrete coffins, which proves to us that they knew they contained very dangerous content.”

WHAT TO KNOW

  • Contractors unearthed six large concrete-encased chemical drums beneath Bethpage Community Park, raising new concerns about the extent of toxic pollution at the onetime Grumman Aerospace dumping grounds.  
  • The state Department of Environmental Conservation says the drums "show no visual signs of a release of contamination to the environment." The DEC is trying to determine the full extent of the contamination and whether there are more drums buried at the site.

  • Northrop Grumman officials said they are working with the DEC to address the situation.

The larger park, which includes a playground and indoor ice skating rink, remains open, Saladino said, after the Nassau County fire marshal determined there is “no hazard to the public at this time.”

In a statement, the state Department of Environmental Conservation confirmed the discovery of the drums and said they "show no visual signs of a release of contamination to the environment." 

"Preliminary analysis of the drums’ contents found chlorinated solvents and waste oil/petroleum," according to the statement. "These compounds are consistent with known historic operations of Northrop-Grumman and the U.S. Navy at this location and the contamination that is the focus of the ongoing remedial action."

The DEC said it will use "ground-penetrating radar, as well as subsurface drilling and sampling to determine the full nature and extent of contamination and the presence of any additional drums buried deep beneath the site." 

Northrop Grumman is working with the DEC "to assess and address this situation as quickly as possible," company spokesperson Vic Beck said in a statement. It did not address Saladino's characterization of the discovery.

"We remain committed to protecting the health and well-being of the community and to continuing our partnership with NYSDEC and other government regulators to address environmental conditions in the area," Beck said.

Discovery's potential impact

The discovery may be significant in the decadeslong saga over pollution at the park, the larger groundwater contamination that stemmed from there and how thoroughly Grumman must clean up the grounds.  

Grumman, the aerospace giant celebrated for its production of World War II fighters and the Apollo lunar module, donated the land for Bethpage Community Park in 1962 from its sprawling 600-acre headquarters in town. For 40 years, the park was a thriving community centerpiece.

But in 2002, after the discovery of PCBs in the ballfield soil, the DEC, which regulates the site, learned just how extensively it had been used to dump chemicals. 

Grumman between the 1940s and 1960s used the land as an "open pit" for wastewater sludges and solvent-soaked rags. It not only led to the on-site soil contamination of various toxic industrial compounds, but it was found to be a major contributor to the groundwater plume of carcinogenic chemicals that spread from the former company grounds and now spans more than 4 miles long, 2 miles wide and 900 feet deep.

The park is also central in a series of ongoing personal injury and proposed class-action lawsuits that allege Grumman contamination contributed to the illnesses of residents over the years. Northrop Grumman has denied the claims.

In 2013, the DEC entered into an agreement with Northrop Grumman to address the ballfield soil contamination, separate from a later, half-billion-dollar deal with the corporation and the U.S. Navy to contain and clean the groundwater plume.

But the DEC never confirmed a whistleblower's 2016 claim that chemical drums had also been found at Bethpage Community Park in the 1990s and reburied. The agency said at the time that the drums were likely previously excavated.

The discovery of the half-dozen drums last week "shows that what we've been yelling about for all these years is real," Saladino said.

Debate over cleanup

The overall plume cleanup, which has seen numerous delays over the years, is not expected to be completed for decades. A timeline for the ballfield soil cleanup, once estimated to be finished next year, is now uncertain.

According to the DEC, Northrop Grumman in July 2023 began extracting contamination that has migrated from the area under the park, with treated water returned to the aquifer. The company also has removed 1,350 pounds of volatile organic compounds from beneath the ballfields, the DEC said. A second phase of work was scheduled to begin last fall.

Oyster Bay officials suspect there are more drums. The town last year sued Northrop Grumman over the pace and thoroughness of the 2013 ballfield cleanup agreement, arguing the soil should be fully excavated and removed, rather than partially excavated, treated and reburied. 

"Maybe we do need to dig up the whole area and find out what’s under there,” said Bethpage Water District commissioner Mike Boufis. “It kind of makes you question some of the paths we’ve been on.”

Saladino said the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency should mandate a full excavation, with the waste treated as hazardous and hauled off Long Island. EPA representatives referred Newsday's questions to the DEC. 

"Our demands are not unreasonable," Saladino said. "We are demanding that the most environmentally responsible approach is taken … and we will not settle for anything less."

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