A Central Islip federal judge on Monday ordered the owners of a Superfund site in Port Jefferson Station to pay $48.1 million to remove hazardous chemicals and shrink a toxic plume caused by the shuttered airplane parts factory.
U.S. District Judge Joan M. Azrack said evidence presented at a trial showed Lawrence Aviation and owner Gerald Cohen were responsible for discharging pollutants that contaminated groundwater and caused a mile-long toxic plume under Port Jefferson Village.
The 126-acre Lawrence Aviation site, on Sheep Pasture Road, was declared a federal Superfund site in 2000 and closed in 2003. The federal Environmental Protection Agency is supervising a cleanup of the site that is expected to take at least another decade.
The cleanup so far has removed more than 18,000 tons of soil contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), asbestos and other hazardous material, federal prosecutors said.
Cohen could not be reached for comment.
He had served a year and one day in federal prison after pleading guilty in 2008 to charges that Lawrence Aviation illegally stored corrosive wastes in two tanks at the site. Cohen was charged in 2014 with illegally removing asbestos from the property. He pleaded not guilty to those charges.
Azrack said Cohen and Lawrence Aviation jointly owe $48,116,024.31 to cover the EPA's cleanup costs, according to a news release from the United States Attorney's office. In addition, Cohen and the company each was ordered to pay $750,000 in civil penalties for failing to provide information requested by the EPA.
“This case and the significant monetary penalties imposed by the court should serve as a warning to would-be polluters, including individuals, that this office and the EPA will use every tool at their disposal to protect Long Island’s groundwater and to ensure that those responsible for contamination will foot the bill for clean-up costs,” Richard P. Donoghue, U.S. attorney for New York's Eastern District, said in a statement.
The contamination at the Lawrence Aviation site has frustrated local officials and residents who feared the long-term impact of the plume and hazardous material that officials said had been dumped there.
Brookhaven Town imposed restrictions designed to ensure that the property would never be developed for residential or retail uses. Adjoining properties may be used for light industrial purposes.
Town Supervisor Edward P. Romaine said he was grateful for Azrack's ruling, adding the site continued to pose an environmental threat to the community.
“The property remains an eyesore to this day, and the plume from Lawrence Aviation has traveled through Port Jefferson all the way [north] to Port Jefferson Harbor and is still harming the harbor,” he said.
In a 37-page memo, Azrack cited numerous instances in which Cohen polluted the property by flouting laws and local officials.
In the 1980s, for example, after Suffolk County health officials issued recommendations aimed at helping Lawrence Aviation comply with pollution control laws, the company used a front-end loader to crush 55-gallon drums containing hazardous substances, Azrack said. That caused "a massive discharge of waste directly onto the ground," the U.S. Attorney's office release said, adding samples taken from the drums revealed "impermissibly high levels of trichloroethylene."
In 1999, state Department of Environmental Conservation tests found groundwater and surface water contamination at the site.
In a statement, EPA Regional Administrator Pete Lopez said the decision is "a victory for New Yorkers who have suffered for years with the environmental degradation inflicted by Lawrence Aviation and its owner, Gerald Cohen.”
Suffolk County is among several entities that have asked federal judges to settle financial claims filed against Cohen and Lawrence Aviation. Suffolk officials have said Cohen and the company owe at least $12 million in back taxes on the property.
In an email, Suffolk spokesman Jason Elan said: “At long last, those responsible for the pollution at this site are being held accountable for the cost of their actions. We welcome the opportunity to work with all parties to come to a settlement and develop a disposition plan to meet local and regional needs.”