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Residents group sues state, Navy over Bethpage contamination

Long Island Pure Water Inc. filed the lawsuit in federal court, asking a judge to order an investigation of radiological materials.

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. Photo Credit: Howard Schnapp

A clean-water group filed a lawsuit late Thursday against Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, his state Department of Environmental Conservation, the U.S. Navy and the United States saying that authorities have failed to properly investigate radioactive contamination in Bethpage.

Long Island Pure Water Ltd., a not-for-profit corporation comprising local residents, filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Central Islip, and asked a judge to order an investigation of radiological materials detected in the area.

“The failures of Governor Cuomo, the [state Department of Environmental Conservation] and the Navy have caused an environmental catastrophe jeopardizing the health and safety of the citizens of Bethpage and its future generations,” the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit also seeks a designation of Long Island Pure Water as the entity that would “spearhead the investigation as defendants cannot be trusted.”

A Navy spokesman said it was department policy not to discuss ongoing litigation.

The DEC, in a statement Friday said it would “vigorously defend itself” and expected the lawsuit to be quickly dismissed.

“These claims are pure fiction and the facts are clear — the public is not exposed to or drinking radium-contaminated water,” the agency said. Current data indicates the radium detected locally is naturally-occuring, it continued.

Many federal environmental laws allow for citizen suits such as the one filed for Long Island Pure Water by attorney James Rigano and they are commonly used to force government agencies to adhere to regulations. Naming a person or entity to oversee the work can happen but is rare.

The suit asked that Rigano’s firm be named a paid master coordinator overseeing the investigation and any remedial work.

“Unfortunately, the plaintiffs have tried to mischaracterize this factual information and threatened to sue DEC unless they were hired to conduct a second study,” DEC said in its statement.

The U.S. Navy and what is now Northrop Grumman operated a research and testing facility on 605 acres in Bethpage from the 1930s to mid-1990s, efforts that led to the Apollo Lunar Module and fighter planes that helped turn the tide of World War II and the Korean War.

That legacy also led to contaminated soils and groundwater and the site was added to the state Superfund list of hazardous waste locations in 1983. Several cleanup plans are already in place to address volatile organic chemicals and other contaminants but not radiologicals.

The state has delisted 588 acres of the site, meaning the acreage is not subject to active investigation or remedial work. Office buildings, soundstages, retail and other operations now occupy the sites. Rigano said the delisting is one reason the group wants to have an outside group look at the radiological contamination.

“They can’t be trusted given their history,” he said of the DEC and Navy. “They’ll look to justify their past actions.”

Bethpage Water District in 2013 shut down a well near the site over concerns about elevated radium levels. At the time the state said it had no indication that radioactive substances were used by Navy or Northrop Grumman.

“We all know that radium is naturally-occuring,” Bethpage Water District Superintendent Mike Boufis said. “We feel the radium that we are seeing is part of the plume. I think this needs to be further investigated. I don’t think there is enough data.”

In 2016, DEC ordered Northrop Grumman to do a comprehensive examination to see where radium may have been coming from and it required the contractor to file a report about any radioactive materials that might have been handled on site.

Northrop Grumman responded in October but the report was not made public until June 2017 in response to a public records request from Newsday. That report revealed the defense contractor had handled more than three dozen radiological materials as part of researching and testing activities.

Northrop Grumman said in the report there was no evidence anything used on-site would be contributing to the radium detections. The nine-page report also said materials used in research and testing activities were disposed of in appropriate off-site facilities. DEC demanded more information after the report was released publicly.

Weeks earlier it was revealed that elevated levels of radium were found in groundwater monitoring wells in February at Bethpage High School, which is across the street from the Superfund site. Subsequent tests also detected the radioactive substance at Central Boulevard School, about two miles south.

DEC officials said they have tested between 70 and 100 groundwater samples for radium, are monitoring water district results for indications of radioactivity and are examining records Northrop Grumman supplied last year.

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