New York officials announced last February that Long Island would be the starting point for a plan to test groundwater at all state Superfund sites for the possible carcinogen 1,4-dioxane, but at the end of 2017, less than 20 percent of the hazardous-waste sites in Nassau and Suffolk counties had been screened, according to data obtained by Newsday.
Those limited results have revealed a handful of sites with elevated levels of the man-made chemical, which is a concern among regulators and water suppliers because it can get into water supplies easily and is difficult and costly to treat.
Critics say the screening needs to move faster and that the state Department of Environmental Conservation must do a better job relaying test results to water districts and the public.
“The more they look the more they are going to find,” said Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment. “Based on the initial data, this is a major concern. The tests, as well as the remediation technology, needs to be expedited. We cannot drag our feet.”
DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos said he is satisfied with the pace of the work done, adding that all 154 Long Island sites will be tested in 2018. In 2019, he said, the DEC will begin testing at the other roughly 700 active Superfund sites — hazardous-waste or dumping locations needing cleanup — elsewhere in the state.
“The 1,4-dioxane issue is a top priority of the governor and a top priority of mine . . . ” Seggos said. “I think it’s giving us a good picture of what’s out there, what the problems are.”
The existing wells tested at these Superfund sites are in groundwater monitoring or containment wells, not part of a network of wells that supply Long Island with its drinking water.
According to the data, released in response to a Newsday public records request, 29 sites were screened on Long Island in 2017 and, as of Friday, individual test results had been made available for 19.
Of those Superfund sites, tests at more than 40 percent detected concentrations of the chemical above a federal health level — .35 parts per billion — at which chronic exposure can lead to a 1-in-a-million increased cancer risk.
At one such site, a containment well at a former chemical manufacturing plant in Old Bethpage, levels of 1,4-dioxane were detected at 390 parts per billion.
“That’s the highest number I’ve seen,” said Rich Humann, president and chief executive of H2M Architects + Engineers, a Melville firm that works for water suppliers. “Even though it’s not in a drinking water well, from an environmental perspective, that’s a concerning number.”
State Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach) said he was encouraged by the attention 1,4-dioxane is getting but that focus cannot let up. “Long Islanders are anxious to have an update on where we are with 1,4-dioxane,” he said. “I would urge the Health Department and DEC to move to look at the sites as expeditiously as they can.”
The state’s announcement of the Superfund screening program came Feb. 11, 2017 — at the same time local and state officials gathered at Stony Brook University called on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to set limits on 1,4-dioxane concentrations in drinking water, because it was unregulated and posed a national threat. In New York, the chemical falls under a generic rule about unregulated substances, which sets a limit of 50 parts per billion.
Weeks earlier, Newsday had reported that the chemical — used in solvents and present in some consumer-care products — had been detected in trace amounts throughout Long Island’s drinking-water supplies, according to testing ordered by the EPA. One location, a now-closed well in Hicksville, yielded the highest concentration — 33 parts per billion — of any drinking-water sample in the nation.
That reporting also revealed that, in the EPA’s national survey of all large and some small drinking-water suppliers, 71 percent of Long Island districts that had detections of 1,4-dioxane found levels at or above .35 parts per billion. Nationwide, almost 7 percent of districts with detections saw concentrations at the level.
Concerned about the EPA results, the state said screening Superfund monitoring wells could help pinpoint possible contamination sites that could be targeted for 1,4-dioxane treatment. The sampling will be done regularly.
After the EPA rebuffed efforts to establish a national regulatory standard for the chemical, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said the state would set a specific regulation for 1,4-dioxane, rather than relying on its rule about unregulated contaminants. A drinking-water quality council empaneled by the governor is expected in February to make a recommendation to the state health commissioner, but it’s unclear what the concentration will be.
The chemical is not easily treated with conventional contaminant removal methods. A handful of treatments has been tested, but none has yet been approved by the state, though a Suffolk County Water Authority request is nearing approval.
Among the sites where elevated levels were detected in the state testing was a location at Brookhaven National Laboratory that saw a result as high as 18.6 parts per billion.
Tests at another site, a groundwater well near the former Northrop Grumman plant, a Superfund site that sits within the Bethpage Water District, hit 37.8 parts per billion.
The district plans to run a large-scale treatment pilot program at its plant off Park Drive in Bethpage, where two drinking-water wells were taken out of service in December after routine tests showed elevated concentrations of 1,4-dioxane in the water.
Mike Boufis, superintendent of the Bethpage district, said he hopes to have treatment — costing about $700,000 for two units — in March.
“There’ll be no risk-taking here at all,” Boufis said.
The Superfund site testing ordered last February builds on limited 1,4-dioxane surveys done by the state in prior years.
At a Superfund site known as 100 Oser Ave. in Hauppauge, 1,4-dioxane tests in 2013 detected concentrations at 220 parts per billion. The same well in 2017 detected the chemical at .62 parts per billion.
DEC officials believe a treatment program in place there also could be removing the 1,4-dioxane; tests of a similar method are being done now at Stony Brook’s Center for Clean Water Technology.
“It was an encouraging observation,” said Mike Ryan, acting director for the DEC’s division of environmental remediation.
Others cautioned, though, that the results also could mean a groundwater plume has moved or that well use nearby could be influencing concentrations.
“I haven’t seen too many cases of accidentally treating things in 30 years,” Esposito said. “It could be a shift in the plume. It could be it’s not continuous in the plume in that the 1,4-dioxane is shifting in the plume.”
Some water district representatives on Long Island were critical that they had not been informed about the elevated results in the recent state tests.
“The water suppliers are obvious interested parties in regards to water quality,” said Humann of H2M. “The more information we have the better. It doesn’t mean we have to act. It doesn’t mean we have to overreact. It means we have more information.”
Among the districts where officials said they were not notified about the test results was Plainview, which encompasses the former Claremont Polychemical site where the reading of 390 parts per billion was detected.
DEC spokesman Sean Mahar said the agency would notify water districts and others if the contamination was near a water supply and posed a threat.
Plainview Water District wells are not nearby, and the water was being blended with water that had low or no 1,4-dioxane concentrations, DEC officials said.
“We intend to make all of the data transparent,” Seggos said. “It’s an ongoing issue and we intend to make them aware on a rolling basis.”
The Long Island Water Conference, which represents 50 water suppliers and industry groups, has discussed pushing legislation requiring notification.
“Implementing a simple communication process to relay this information will have a profound impact on the coordination of efforts to further protect the quality of our drinking water,” the group said in a statement.