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Defense spending bill requires report to Congress on radium near Bethpage

An aerial view of the Gabreski Air National

An aerial view of the Gabreski Air National Guard field in Westhampton Beach from 2011. Credit: Kevin P. Coughlin

A provision of the nation’s next military spending bill orders the defense secretary for the first time to report back to Congress on any radium or radioactive material releases into groundwater that happened around the site of a former Navy plant in Bethpage.

The nearly $696 billion National Defense Authorization Act, which passed both houses of Congress last week and is on the way to President Donald Trump for signature, also includes increases in funds that could pay for environmental remediation in places like Bethpage and the Gabreski Air National Guard field in Westhampton Beach.

This year the Navy secretary was required to file an annual report to Congress detailing contaminants that are leaving the former Navy site within a 10-mile radius, the movement of contamination over time, and how drinking water supplies could be affected. The first report was filed in June but did not address radioactive materials, despite elevated levels being found earlier in the year in monitoring wells at a high school near the former Navy site.

Once the bill is signed, Defense Secretary James Mattis has 120 days to amend that report and it must address radioactive materials “released” within a 75-mile radius of Bethpage. It does not require any new testing.

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) pressed Mattis earlier this year to investigate handling of radioactive materials at the site after radium was detected at the school.

That was also around the same time a Freedom of Information request filed by Newsday revealed that Northrop Grumman — and its predecessor Grumman Aerospace Corp. — handled more than three dozen radioactive materials on the 600-acre site shared with the Navy.

Regulators had previously said they had no records indicating use of radioactive materials.

“It’s critical that Long Islanders get answers surrounding the types of radioactive materials used at the Navy-Northrop Grumman site,” Schumer said in a statement. “We need transparency and facts, not stonewalling and spin.”

The press office for Mattis did not respond to a request for comment.

Grumman has said there is no reason to believe any materials once used at the site “could be a source” of radium detections in the area now.

State Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Basil Seggos welcomed the required addendum to the report and said his agency also is conducting a review of data and records related to radioactive materials.

“This is going to provide important additional data to help us evaluate conditions in the area,” Seggos said Friday.

The Navy and the defense contractor researched, tested and manufactured airplanes and space exploration vehicles at the site from the 1930s to mid-1990s and it has been on the state Superfund list since 1983 because of soil and groundwater contamination.

The spending bill also includes increases in funds that can pay for environmental remediation stemming from military sites in the nation. The Air Force fund got a boost of $30 million to $323 million and the Navy received an increase of $43 million to $323 million.

Rep. Thomas Suozzi (D-Glen Cove), Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) and Sens. Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) pushed for the increases.

Suozzi said the Navy money, which is dedicated to environmental restoration projects nationwide, could help fund efforts in Bethpage.

“The Navy guys who are getting this money have to recognize there are a lot of people paying attention to this site . . .,” Suozzi said. “The people of Bethpage and surrounding areas have lived with this for four decades and my goal is to accelerate cleanup of the property.”

Schumer’s office said the Air Force money could be used to help with efforts to remove perfluorinated compounds, which for years were used in foams to fight fuel fires and have been found in groundwater supplies at bases across the country, including the Gabreski Air National Guard base. Exposure can cause immune disorders and cause fetal health and development issues.

The state, Suffolk County and Suffolk County Water Authority have covered costs of delivering bottled water to affected homes, as well as installing treatment on water wells and connecting more than 60 homes with private wells to public water supplies.

The estimated cost so far is more than $3 million and negotiations to get the federal government to shoulder some of the burden slowed earlier this year when the DOD placed talks on hold. Federal officials said negotiations have resumed.

“The Suffolk County Water Authority hopes the Air National Guard lives up to their previous commitment to pay for treatment and connection costs associated with the contamination they created,” water authority CEO Jeffrey W. Szabo said in a statement.

The state listed Gabreski as a superfund site in 2016 and named the Air Force as a responsible party. Seggos said the DEC was focused on stopping exposure first and on legal issues later.

“The Air National Guard dumped the material,” he said. “They are responsible for the cleanup. . . . The polluter has to pay.”

Another provision in the defense bill requires the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to undertake public health studies at eight military sites where perfluorinated compounds have been discovered. Schumer’s office said it would press for Gabreski to be among those.

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