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Schumer, Suffolk officials: Feds must pay Gabreski cleanup costs

Sen. Chuck Schumer and other officials, at a news conference in Hauppauge on Friday, Sept. 8, 2017, said the Defense Department is responsible for payment for cleanup and other costs related to contamination at Gabreski Air National Guard Base in Westhampton Beach. (Credit: Newsday / Jeffrey Basinger)

Sen. Chuck Schumer called Friday on the U.S. Department of Defense to reimburse Suffolk County and the Suffolk County Water Authority nearly $5 million in costs to clean up contamination stemming from Gabreski Air National Guard Base in Westhampton Beach.

“I am here to give a message to DOD: Pay up,” Schumer (D-N.Y.) said at a news conference in Hauppauge, standing with Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone and officials with the Suffolk County Water Authority — all of whom said the Defense Department is responsible for the costs.

Negotiations between the water authority and federal officials to cover cleanup, hook-ups of private wells to the public system and treatment over five years were put on hold for review earlier this year by the Defense Department, according to an email the agency sent to the water authority in May.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation added the 89-acre defense facility to the state Superfund list in September 2016 after sampling of water supplies near the base detected perfluorooctanesulfonic acid, or PFOS, which was part of a liquid foam that firefighters used at the air base to practice putting out airplane fires. Perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, is another such compound.

The Suffolk County Water Authority began hooking up the first of 57 homes the month they were discovered and also treated four wells to remove PFOS and PFOA, which do not break down easily in water.

The chemicals can affect the immune system and fetal health and development, as well as cause liver damage, cancer and thyroid problems, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

At the time, state and county officials said the Air National Guard would pay for costs to hook up about a dozen homes where detections exceeded limits contained in a federal health advisory.

The DEC, meanwhile, wanted all the homes connected swiftly. The state agency said it would cover those costs and seek to recoup them from federal officials under the Superfund law.

Earlier this week, in response to questions from Newsday, an Air Force public affairs officer said in a statement that the Air National Guard would be able to renew talks about mitigating sites with elevated levels of PFOS and PFOA.

The statement said that only would apply to “future mitigation activities; reimbursement for past expenditures is not authorized.”

So far, the water authority has spent about $3.15 million and faces about $1.72 million in future costs, Schumer’s office said Friday.

Schumer urged the Air Force, National Guard Bureau and the Defense Department to immediately negotiate payment for all costs that Suffolk County and the water authority have incurred related to the contamination, including the earlier expenses.

The Defense Department’s current stance “suggests that the feds are trying to back out of their commitment,” Schumer said. “They made a commitment . . . They said, ‘We will pay. You just clean it up’ . . . And now they are trying to back out of it and to that end we say ‘No way.’ ”

The National Guard Bureau, in an Aug. 17, 2016 letter, accepted Gabreski as the source of the contamination and told health and water authority officials that the Air Force and National Guard will “work with you to ensure that safe, alternative drinking water is provided to private well owners and customers of SCWA.”

Jim Gaughran, chairman of the Suffolk County Water Authority board, said if the water authority is not reimbursed, the costs probably would pass to ratepayers.

Gaughran said that “really is not fair. This is not a problem they caused.”

Rep. Lee Zeldin, through a spokesman, called the situation “unacceptable” and said he will pursue reimbursement.

In May, Zeldin (R-Shirley) urged the Air Force to commit funding, saying that work had begun at the water authority’s expense because of the Air National Guard’s “prior willingness to reimburse them.”

“SCWA was in the final stages of negotiations with the [Air National Guard], projecting this project to total around $4.9 million over five years, when the suspension order was issued,” he wrote then to the acting secretary of the Air Force and the chief of the National Guard Bureau.

Shortly after the contamination was discovered in September 2016, Zeldin wrote leaders of the Defense Department and Air National Guard, calling for the Defense Department to assume costs associated with connecting homes with private wells to the public water supply.

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