Sen. Chuck Schumer is demanding that defense contractor Northrop Grumman and the U.S. Navy publicly disclose any documents about the use, storage or disposal of radioactive materials at a former manufacturing site in Bethpage.
The senator sent the demand letter Thursday, after reports that shallow groundwater monitoring wells on the grounds of Bethpage High School had detected elevated levels of radium, a carcinogen.
The tests were conducted in February and discussed at a school board meeting on May 30. The district announced the find on its website late Tuesday.
State and school officials have stressed that the public is not at risk because the radium is 60 feet below the surface and was found in groundwater that is not used for drinking. The school’s water comes from the Bethpage Water District, which adheres to safe drinking water standards.
“The public . . . has a right to know what radioactive materials or other contaminants may be present in the community, and particularly at a school,” Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in the letter.
Northrop Grumman and the Navy did not respond to requests for comment.
The school district, through its public relations firm, said it appreciated Schumer’s involvement.
The high school is across from Bethpage Community Park, land once used by what now is Northrop Grumman to legally dump paint, oils, chromium-tainted sludge, arsenic and solvents.
The parcel formerly was part of a 600-acre campus, where the Navy and Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corp. tested, researched and manufactured aviation and space exploration vehicles from the 1930s to the 1990s.
Contaminated water first was discovered in the 1940s, and the state added the site to its hazardous waste Superfund list in the 1980s.
Several cleanup plans are in effect to address contaminated soil and groundwater plumes, including one that has migrated three miles off-site. In 2012, the Bethpage Water District shut down a well after finding elevated radium levels. The source still is unknown.
Radium, a naturally occurring element, once was used to make the dials of watches and instruments luminescent. Over time, it breaks down into other elements, including radon, a radioactive gas. Air tests in the high school in April did not detect elevated levels of the gas.
“We know stuff isn’t being used anymore,” Schumer said Friday. “But the contamination is there and spreading. We need to know who is responsible.”
Seaford resident Bill Pavone, a member of a Navy citizens board monitoring the Defense Department’s cleanup efforts, said he supports full disclosure in an open forum.
“I’ve watched it get closer every year,” he said of the contamination’s proximity to his neighborhood. “A lot of this stuff, if it was cleaned up in the 1980s and ’90s, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
Local officials have said the plumes put drinking water supplies of nearly 250,000 people at risk.
“The people of Bethpage have suffered under this cloud for much too long and the entire process is moving much too slowly,” said Rep. Thomas Suozzi (D-Glen Cove), whose district includes Bethpage. “This is evidence of why this cleanup should be accelerated.”
Last year, the state Department of Environmental Conservation ordered Northrop Grumman to provide a full accounting of any radioactive materials used at the site.
The agency said preliminary information provided by Northrop Grumman indicated there was no evidence of radioactive materials being used during manufacturing or a nuclear reactor at the site.
“We continue to investigate potential sources and define the nature and extent of radium in the groundwater,” DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos said in a statement.