One of the pressing projects being funded by $2.5 billion...

One of the pressing projects being funded by $2.5 billion proposal to fix drinking water is containment of the Bethpage plume. Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

ALBANY — Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s $2.5 billion proposal to fix drinking water, sewer and pollution problems on Long Island and statewide was one of the biggest items in his budget address last week, but advocates say they hope the problems it aims to fix aren't even bigger.

“We need to invest in clean, safe drinking water,” Cuomo said Tuesday in his budget address. “We have a $2.5 billion investment to replace infrastructure all across the state.”

Water officials on the front lines of the growing concern credit Cuomo for focusing on the problem after decades in which, they said, the state paid too little attention and appropriated too little funding. In 2018, for example, Cuomo led the effort to create the first $2.5 billion program under the Clean Water Infrastructure Act, which is already devoted to projects ranging from contaminated wells on Long Island to century-old pipes in some upstate cities.

One of the pressing projects being funded by the 2018 program is near Bethpage. There, a 600-acre site was operated by Northrup Grumman and the U.S. Navy from the 1930s to mid-1990s, manufacturing aircraft from World War II fighters to the Apollo moon lander. Now, families are blaming cancer cases on the residue that remains in the soil and water. 

 “The discussion has gone on for decades,” Cuomo said Tuesday about the plume. “It is a toxic chemical that is moving through Long Island, steadily moving towards the coast. It is poisoning the wells as it goes … Grumman doesn't want to pay, the Navy doesn't want to pay. Let us say we'll do the remediation and then we're going to sue you to get the money back.”

The expected massive cost of the remediation project hasn’t yet been determined. In 2017, construction alone of a containment and treatment system was estimated at $150 million.

The state will soon release an expanded engineering and groundwater study to present options for containment of the plume, which is now nearly four miles long and two miles wide in the underground aquifer, the Cuomo administration said Wednesday. Public hearings will be held.

“I think the governor is absolutely right that the aquifers are in danger, so I appreciate aggressive action in that area,” said Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach), chairman of the Senate Environmental Conservation Committee.

Now, however, Cuomo’s budget proposal for another $2.5 billion over five years translates to $500 million in the 2019-20 fiscal year for projects statewide, with a plan to fulfill the additional $2 billion promise if all goes well in the coming years’ fiscal plans.

Just where that $500 million would be spent isn’t yet determined, according to the Cuomo administration. Communities would have to apply for the funds on the merits of their plans and needs, and there are many.

“We definitely want to thank the governor for continuing to provide aid at levels not seen in decades,” said Ty Fuller, chairman of the Long Island Water Conference. “But it’s hard to say if the additional funds will be enough … treatment and ongoing maintenance and operations is very costly.”

One specific concern is the cap on grants of about $3 million that all municipalities face when they apply for aid, he said.

“The treatment costs would certainly be in excess of that amount,” Fuller said. “That in our view needs to be changed … or maybe scale the grant limit to the population level served.”

State funding is vital, because the public must have confidence in the quality of their drinking water for communities to flourish, said Suffolk County Water Authority Chairman Patrick Halpin.

“However, it is essential that Long Island receive a percentage of the funding in proper proportion to its large population,” he said.

The state’s ability to spend more on several big-ticket projects is hamstrung by its own 2-percent spending cap and reduced aid from the federal government, Cuomo said Tuesday.

“This clearly is not what was promised to our communities to fix water infrastructure,” said Elizabeth Moran, environmental policy director for the New York Public Interest Research Group. “The needs are tremendous. There are more than enough shovel-ready projects and $500 million is a far cry from what is needed to catch up with these pressing needs.”

With David M. Schwartz

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