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Officials seek federal testing of Bay Shore toxic plume

Suffolk County Health Services for the first time asked federal researchers to perform independent tests of a toxic plume in Bay Shore amid concerns that attacking contaminants with oxygen could mask or worsen toxins.

In a statement to Newsday Tuesday, Suffolk confirmed that, six months ago, it had sought tests of well samples by the U.S. Geological Survey. Twenty samples were collected between spring and fall of this year, according to the county.

Suffolk was "concerned about the oxygen injection remediation and asked us to look into it," said Stephen Terracciano, office chief of the USGS's N.Y. Water Science Center in Coram. Although it was too early to discuss results, he said, the USGS will present some findings next week at the Society of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry conference in Portland, Ore.

"We've analyzed 10 samples," he said. "There will an abstract for the conference."

Suffolk officials are waiting to see the complete results, which will be released about six months from now, before saying whether there is reason for worry. Some residents, unaware of the tests, voiced concerns about the oxygen treatments at a public meeting on the plume two weeks ago.

"The county commissioned the USGS study and collected samples in order to assure that the risks associated with the site are understood and defined," Suffolk said in a statement Monday.

National Grid has commissioned nearly all tests of the plume, and is responsible for cleaning up the site. Suffolk Legis. Wayne Horsley (D-Babylon), chairman of a legislative committee on the environment, said he was "pleased Suffolk is bringing in the big guns. There has always been concern from neighbors and the health department about the treatment process and the findings."

National Grid, with the blessing of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, has installed hundreds of oxygen treatment points around the Bay Shore plume to encourage microbes to eat toxins. The spills beneath Union Boulevard in the village were created by decades of toxic dumping of coal tar, residue from a gas-making process that continued until the 1970s. Recent maps released by National Grid indicate the plumes are diminishing.

Irving Like, a lawyer for residents, said the involvement of the USGS supported residents' concerns that testing by National Grid was not independent. Some residents have complained that results sent from the company have been altered by "validators," whose job, according to National Grid, is to accept, deny or alter all the testing data as the final step in the process.

"What it tells me is that Suffolk County is not satisfied they're getting a true picture of the health hazards," said Like, who is leading a suit that seeks medical monitoring of residents, compensation for diminished home value and other methods of remediation.

Suffolk County has expressed reservations about the oxygenation method in letters dating as far back as 2006. The latest concerns were raised by a study from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. It indicated that oxygen might alter plume constituents, and "their concentrations in the environment may even increase as the sites are treated." In a statement, National Grid discounted concerns that its treatment methods could mask the plume's toxins.

"We disagree with [the] assertion that the oxygenation of MGP materials may mask common contaminants so they are less easily detected in common testing," the company said. "National Grid has conducted extensive groundwater sampling and reports both the analytical results and associated illustrations each quarter. . . . To date, our data has demonstrated consistent reductions in both constituent concentrations and the size of the groundwater plume."

At least one resident was concerned enough about potential health hazards to his two young children, one of whom has developmental disabilities, that he plans to move out in coming weeks.

"There is something wrong," Bay Shore resident Tom Stringer told neighbors at the meeting two weeks ago. "It's troubling and it's certainly anger-inducing."

Asked whether the plume could result in health problems, the State Health Department last week said: "We have not found any pathways to exposure. We will certainly continue to do sampling to ensure the public health is protected."

Chemical engineer Robert Nicholson, who is among more than 20 people suing National Grid, said testing like that conducted by the USGS is essential, because the oxygenation systems "are everywhere," including in a playground at St. Patrick's elementary school. If injecting oxygen into the plumes is merely masking toxins, he said, "that's not bioremediation. It's bait-and-switch."

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