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Bethpage Water District radium level higher than state standard

One well at the Bethpage Water District facility,

One well at the Bethpage Water District facility, shown here on Oct. 24, 2014, has been found to contain a radium concentration that was higher than normal. Credit: Steve Pfost

State environmental officials Monday night ordered Northrop Grumman to grant access to wells monitoring a Bethpage plume after the local water district reported levels of the radioactive element radium exceeded drinking water standards.

“If they [Northrop Grumman] don’t allow access, then we will assert our right to perform the testing ourselves,” the state Department of Enivronmental Conservation said.

Bethpage Water District runs two wells at its Sophia Street site, where the elevated levels of radium appeared. One showing the higher levels has been locked off from the water supply system since 2013 and the other is being used only as a reserve, such as for fire emergencies.

Water from those wells is not being delivered as drinking water, Bethpage Water Superintendent Michael Boufis said, and “the contamination is climbing” at that site.

The state’s order comes after Bethpage officials Monday sent a letter to several state officials and politicians asking the DEC to do a comprehensive investigation to find out where the radium is coming from.

The letter from the water district’s consultant, H2M architects + engineers, said Bethpage raised concerns with DEC about radium levels in 2013 but “the DEC was completely dismissive . . . and attempted to superficially explain away the radium concern as an overreaction and no cause for alarm,” H2M president and CEO Richard Humann wrote.

The region has long been plagued by a number of plumes emanating from a site in Bethpage once used by the Navy and later Northrop Grumman for aviation manufacturing.

Covering more than 600 acres, the sprawling operations gave birth to the Apollo Lunar module and the Hellcat fighter. But with that legacy came contamination, some of which has moved three miles south of the site.

Several cleanup plans are underway to treat soil and groundwater contamination, including volatile organic chemicals.

Radium, discovered by French physicist Marie Curie, occurs naturally in low levels in rock, soil, water, plants and animals.

Bethpage water officials say their Sophia Street well showed radium levels are higher than other places in the district.

DEC officials called the Bethpage results concerning and said radium testing is underway at 52 wells in the area. One well between the former manufacturing area and the Sophia Street wells showed peak radium levels of 8.59 picocuries per liter.

State and federal standards for radium in treated drinking water is 5 picocuries per liter averaged over a year based on quarterly testing. Bethpage officials say the Sophia Street well recently averaged 5.95 picocuries per liter.

“DECs evaluation of this data has led to the conclusion that it will be necessary to sample additional wells located between the Bethpage Water District wells and the highest sample location near . . . the former plant site,” DEC acting Commissioner Basil Seggos said in a letter to Northrop Grumman.

Boufis hailed the state’s decision saying, “I think it will help us make better-educated decisions in the future.”

Northrop Grumman spokesman Vic Beck said the company received the letter from the DEC and was reviewing it.

“It’s definitely alarming,” said Jeanne O’Connor, who lives near Sophia Street and is one of the founders of Bethpage Cancer Project, which is tracking cancer and autoimmune diagnoses. “It seems we’re told everything is under control and we keep getting new reports and new hot spots.”

In addition, Seggos also demanded Northrop Grumman provide a comprehensive “description of any and all radioactive materials manufactured, handled or installed in any other products manufactured at the site during the period of operation.”

Assemb. Joseph Saladino (R-Massapequa) said it was time for action to contain the plume. “We have to be focused on doing everything possible to step in and fix the problems we see occurring again and again in our water,” he said.

Bethpage Water District has asked the Nassau County Department of Health for guidance on what to do with the drinking wells. Boufis said it is likely they will remain offline. That means losing about 4 million gallons of drinking water capacity each day in the 33,000-customer district.

The district looked into treatment options but found them logistically impossible, Humann said. Removing the element would create a radioactive byproduct that can’t be shipped on bridges and tunnels, or disposed of through sewer systems.

The county has not finalized recommendations to the district, spokesman Brian Nevin said.

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