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Navy effort to stop Grumman plume spread includes new extraction wells

On Thursday, the Navy said they were willing to work on “containing” the plume and released a more aggressive plan to extract the worst pollution during a virtual public meeting. The plan reverses decades of resistance to the comprehensive cleanup favored by water providers and, in the last few years, urged by state regulators. Credit: Newsday / Chris Ware

Ending decades of resistance, the U.S. Navy says it will attempt to capture the Grumman groundwater contamination plume plaguing Bethpage and surrounding communities, before it reaches Massapequa and the Great South Bay.

The plan, revealed Thursday at a virtual community meeting, reverses longstanding Navy opposition to the kind of comprehensive cleanup favored by water providers and federal elected officials and, in the last few years, urged by state regulators. The Navy would install as many as four new extraction wells along the Southern State Parkway, near the plume’s leading edge, as well as two new treatment systems.

"We have recognized that we can do more," the agency’s project manager, Brian Murray, told a citizen advisory board via videoconference.

As the pollution has spread, at a pace of a foot a day, officials from Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) down to local water commissioners have repeatedly called for the responsible parties — Grumman’s corporate successor, Northrop Grumman, and the Navy, which co-owned part of the land where Grumman operated — to take the threat more seriously.

Containing two dozen contaminants, most notably the carinogenic metal degreaser trichloroethylene, or TCE, the plume is now more than 4.3 miles long, 2.1 miles wide and as much as 900 feet deep. It has forced installation of ever-more-costly treatment systems on public drinking water wells.

Newsday published an investigation earlier this year, The Grumman Plume: Decades of Deceit, detailing the history of deceptive statements, missteps and minimization that slowed cleanup of what has become Long Island's most intractable environmental crisis. The stories prompted state and federal officials to pledge renewed focus on securing the comprehensive measures that were historically brushed off.

"I really want to recognize tonight this great shift and change in Navy policy," said Stan Carey, superintendent of the Massapequa Water District, "to what we've been advocating for many years."

The shift comes as the state Department of Environmental Conservation is finalizing its $585 million plan — of which the Navy’s efforts are a big component — to fully contain and clean the toxic mess caused by Grumman's chemical waste dumping. The former 600-acre manufacturing grounds in Bethpage was first designated a state Superfund site in 1983, and since the mid-1990s the contamination stemming from it has been subject to numerous formal cleanup plans, known as records of decision.

Northrop Grumman is also expected to sign on to a significant portion of the latest state proposal. Its responsibility is largely focused on the more-deeply contaminated eastern side of the plume.

"For over 20 years, Northrop Grumman has worked closely with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, the Navy and other stakeholders to develop and implement fact-based, scientifically sound remedial strategies," company spokesman Tim Paynter said in a statement Friday. "Through that partnership, we continue to engage in productive discussions on implementation of the amended record of decision."

It remains unclear how the total cost will be divided. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has previously said the state would do the work itself and, if necessary, sue the polluters to recover costs.

But the Navy's new position lessens the possibility of a lengthy legal battle.

"The Navy’s proposal is a direct result of Governor Cuomo’s leadership in demanding full cleanup and containment of the Navy-Grumman plume," state environmental conservation commissioner Basil Seggos said in a statement Friday. "Right now, DEC is laser-focused on completing negotiations with both parties that will soon result in final agreements for the benefit of the environment and the communities that have endured this catastrophe for too long."

When the state plan was released last December, it was hailed by Bethpage and surrounding water districts as the culmination of Albany’s commitment to the issue. Up until 2015, environmental conservation leaders had been accused of lax oversight and a penchant for endorsing cheaper half-measures favored by the polluters. But even after the state changed gears, Northrop Grumman and the Navy hadn’t, arguing that full containment and cleanup wasn’t feasible, cost-effective or necessary.

"I thought the Navy put their best foot forward," Bethpage Water District Superintendent Michael Boufis said Friday of the agency’s new plan. "I do really think they are taking it seriously."

Schumer, who has pushed for full plume containment for more than a decade, said, "After many years of hard work, this is a very welcome course correction from the Navy, away from reactive well-head treatment and towards more proactive and thorough cleanup of this toxic plume – before it contaminates more drinking water."

Murray on Thursday had characterized the Navy’s plan — part of its latest five-year review of existing cleanup efforts — as based on new modeling showing that the additional wells and treatment systems could possibly halt the plume’s southward spread. The agency will also install new systems at a "hot spot" of heightened contamination within the heart of the plume.

Northrop Grumman has planned several of those systems as well, with the state requesting even more in its proposal.

Murray hesitated to call the Navy’s new plans a "full containment" effort, as the state has characterized its proposal for a barrier of hydraulic wells along the plume’s leading edge. That’s because, he said, mapping and technology uncertainties make removing every single drop of contamination challenging.

"It is difficult to say we can get a completely pristine and clean aquifer," Murray said. "But we have to keep working at it."

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