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Grumman plume handling called 'outrageous,' 'shameful'

During an appearance at VFW Post 5253 in

During an appearance at VFW Post 5253 in Albertson, where he announced that he would be pushing for coverage and compensation for four additional health conditions affecting Vietnam veterans exposed to Agent Orange, Sen. Chuck Schumer took a moment to comment on Newsday's investigation of the Grumman plume. Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

ALBANY — Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and other top New York officials on Wednesday criticized aerospace giant Grumman and the U.S. Navy for keeping information secret and dragging out the cleanup of an underground contaminated plume that’s been spreading for more than 50 years.

Cuomo cited a Newsday investigation in saying that he would continue to push for full containment of the so-called Grumman plume, a channel of chemical contamination that began decades ago below a Navy-Grumman site in Bethpage and has stretched to become 4.3 miles long, 2.1 miles wide and up to 900 feet deep.

"It's outrageous that for decades the U.S. Navy and Northrup Grumman slow-walked the cleanup of the Navy-Grumman plume, even though they knew its toxic chemicals were contaminating water and potentially endangering residents,” Cuomo said in a statement after Newsday published The Grumman Plume: Decades of Deceit. Northrop Grumman is Grumman’s successor.

Federal officials echoed the governor.

“Newsday’s investigation exposes the concerning details of a long-standing, systemic failure to protect drinking water for residents on Long Island,” Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-Garden City) said. “It is shameful that the extent of this problem was swept under the rug by Grumman executives and government officials for so long.”

Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-Glen Cove) said it was time to stop dawdling.

“It is time for the Navy and Grumman to each write big checks and turn this long-overdue cleanup over to the NYS DEC and the Bethpage Water District," Suozzi said, referring to the state Department of Environmental Conservation. "No more wasting time and money on lawyers and engineers; let's get this done already."

In the report, Newsday found Grumman, as far back as the mid-1970s, knew its toxic chemicals were contaminating local groundwater and the company buried information that could have prompted a timely cleanup.

Documents examined by Newsday revealed warnings that the plume was spreading farther and in directions different from first projected, false statements from officials blaming the pollution on a nearby manufacturer and a confidential memo from 1989 that declared Grumman’s unequivocal responsibility for contamination that reached drinking water wells.

U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer said the water supply for more than 200,000 people "could be poisoned."

"What they talk about at Grumman is just appalling," the senator, at an unrelated event in Alberston, said in reference to the Newsday investigation. "We always suspected that what they were saying about the source of the pollution and the toxicity was" disingenuous "and this sort of confirms it."

Nassau County and the U.S. Geological Survey identified the contamination as a plume in 1986 — it has doubled in size since, and is moving at a pace of a foot per day toward Great South Bay.

The plume is now classified as a hazardous waste site under the Superfund program and considered one of the most complex in the nation. Although it contains more than 20 contaminants, the most significant is the metal degreaser trichloroethylene, or TCE, which has found its way into local drinking water.

Grumman once employed 20,000 at its Long Island site, known for building World War II fighter planes and the lunar module.

Combined, Northrop Grumman and the Navy say they have spent more than $300 million on the cleanup. But last fall, over the objections of those two entities, the Cuomo administration announced it would move forward with what it called a $585 million comprehensive remediation plan. The plan includes using wells to pump and treat millions of gallons of water per day.

In his statement Wednesday, the governor reassert his commitment to the cleanup.

"Jobs and industry are obviously critically important, but we cannot sacrifice the health of our communities,” Cuomo said. “This administration does not sit idly by and that's why we initiated the full containment of the plume and we will work until the job is done. We will continue to prioritize actions across the state to hold U.S. Navy, Northrup Grumman and other polluters accountable and ensure the safe and protective cleanup of our industrial past."

Northrop Grumman has defended its disposal practices as legal at the time. In a statement provided in response to the Newsday report, spokesman Tim Paynter said the company has worked closely with federal and state agencies “to develop and implement scientifically sound remediation strategies that protect human health and environment.”

The company noted it has installed five containment wells along the southern boundary of the former 600-acre parcel and has extracted 18,000 gallons of contaminated groundwater over the last two decades.

Said Paynter: “Northrop Grumman remains committed to working with all stakeholders to provide for fact-based, scientifically-sound remediation efforts that advance the cleanup and help protect the community without unnecessary disruption and potential harm.”

With Bart Jones

State & Region