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Navy: Radium in Bethpage groundwater likely naturally occurring

View of a portion of the former Navy

View of a portion of the former Navy site in Bethpage taken from Thomas Avenue with the Bethpage water tower in the background, Friday, Feb. 17, 2017. Credit: Howard Schnapp

A Navy report to Congress about radium in Bethpage groundwater supplies says the detections are consistent with naturally occurring levels of the radioactive element, and likely not from past military or defense contractor operations.

Still, the Navy also said it is undertaking an inspection and assessment of the 600-acre site, where the military and what is now Northrop Grumman ran manufacturing, testing and research operations from the 1930s to mid-1990s.

The ongoing probe will include testing for radium in groundwater, monitoring wells and storm water runoff as well as interviewing former employees. Testing should begin this month, said JC Kreidel, a spokeswoman for Naval Facilities Engineering Command.

“This report provides documentation that the concentration of radium and other radioactive materials identified in groundwater in the vicinity of [the Navy site in] Bethpage are consistent with naturally-occurring levels and common geochemical factors normally found in the regional aquifer,” said the report obtained by Newsday.

The report reviewed documents from Northrop Grumman, evaluated test results going back more than a decade and consulted U.S. Geological Survey studies. The reviewed documents date back only to the 1960s, the report notes.

Nonradioactive contamination was discovered in groundwater in the 1940s and the state Department of Environmental Conservation added it to its Superfund list in 1983. A number of plans are in effect to remove soil and remediate groundwater contaminated with volatile organic chemicals and other substances.

In 2012, though, the Bethpage Water District closed a well after detecting levels of radium above the background level typically found in other wells in the district. The DEC later began sampling area monitoring wells for radium.

Last year, monitoring wells — not drinking water wells — at Bethpage High School and Central Boulevard Elementary School detected the radioactive substance.

A provision in the National Defense Authorization Act, signed in November, required the Navy to file an update to Congress focusing on radiological groundwater impacts in Bethpage.

“Concerned residents and experts should sift through this data with a fine-toothed comb to better determine the scale, scope and presence of radioactive substances and if they are migrating and threatening drinking water or public health,” said U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer, who got the provision into the NDAA.

The defense contractor has said it used, handled or stored more than three dozen radioactive materials at the site.

“There is no documentation of a release of radium or other radioactive materials at the facility,” the report said.

The report also notes the area was originally home to farms and detected radium could have come from fertilizer.

DEC officials were reviewing the report and could not comment.

“I’m not a scientist, but it seems odd that after all these years the radium has only recently been discovered and has been found to be naturally occurring,” U.S. Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-Glen Cove) said in a statement.

The report points to a 2012 U.S. Geological Survey study of the North Atlantic Coastal Plan aquifer system, which includes the aquifers that supply Long Island’s drinking water.

It said more than 25 percent of samples taken across the breadth of the aquifer system were above the safe drinking-water threshold of 5 picocuries per liter and the highest detection was 20.4 picocuries per liter. Only one other aquifer system in the nation had more samples exceeding regulations.

Total radium levels in samples taken last year at the Central Boulevard Elementary School monitoring wells ranged between 9.68 and 32.15 picocuries per liter. At the high school, which is across the street from the former Navy/Northrop Grumman boundaries, were between 6.48 and 27.7 picocuries per liter.

The Bethpage Water District turned off a well at Sophia Street in 2012 after nearing the 5 picocurie-per-liter threshold, Bethpage Water District Superintendent Mike Boufis said.

“We still believe that it’s not naturally occurring,” Boufis said Tuesday of the detected radium. “It’s either an anomaly or it’s coming from somewhere.”

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