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Defense firm's offensive ploy

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo speaks about the Bethpage

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo speaks about the Bethpage plume in Farmingdale in December 2017. The plume is considered Long Island's largest groundwater pollution source. Credit: Howard Schnapp

You have to hand it to Northrop Grumman: No one does chutzpah quite like the aerospace and defense technology giant.

The company, with the Navy, operated manufacturing facilities in Bethpage for years that left an awful legacy of groundwater pollution. But Northrop Grumman has chosen obstinance over cooperation when it comes to cleaning up the mess. Now that the state has proposed a smart, ambitious 30-year, $585-million plan to finally contain and clean the plume, Northrop Grumman says the plan is unnecessary.

What nonsense.

The company prefers basically to maintain its current treatment plan with a few modifications. But that approach has created a monster — a growing plume now 4.3 miles long, 2.1 miles wide and 900 feet deep. It contains two dozen contaminants, including trichloroethene, a carcinogen, and the likely carcinogen 1,4-dioxane. And it’s moving south at a foot per day. Continuing on roughly the same path would be folly.

In written comments to the state Department of Environmental Conservation, Northrop Grumman says the DEC’s proposal strays from “scientifically-based principles.” But the DEC and the U.S. Geological Survey used decades of data to develop a state-of-the-art model for groundwater and contamination flow, then ran the model under various scenarios of water usage. That’s how science is done.

Northrop Grumman also cited past statements by the DEC and other state agencies that full containment of the plume is unnecessary and impractical. But those statements were based on data, analysis and reports supplied by the company itself. Northrop Grumman, in self-serving mode, told state officials the plume could not be contained, and those officials parroted that conclusion. 

The state has made progress since then. It has acknowledged the inadequacy of prior plans and, led by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos, has taken responsibility for the plume. When the Bethpage Water District closed a well in 2013 because of elevated radium, Northrop Grumman denied radium usage at its facility. In 2016, after Seggos took over, he ordered the company to report on any use of radioactive materials and Northrop Grumman divulged it had handled dozens of radioactive isotopes like uranium, tritium, polonium and, yes, radium.

To stop the plume before it reaches other water districts and to remove contaminants, the DEC proposes to treat 17.5 million gallons a day via a series of new wells and treatment plants, before returning the water to groundwater. A big problem requires a big response. And if Northrop Grumman or the Navy, which has not commented on the plan, refuses to cooperate, the DEC plans to proceed and go to court later to get reimbursed. That’s the right approach. Northrop Grumman prefers to wait for the plume to reach a drinking water well before beginning treatment. That’s the wrong approach.

Talented Long Islanders made Northrop Grumman a powerhouse. But the company has turned its back on them. The DEC should push forward with its plan, and start to bring this nightmare to an end. — The editorial board


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