Few Long Island legacies were as well-burnished as the one that once belonged to Grumman. The Bethpage-based aerospace giant was the pride of the region for its aviation accomplishments, the role it played as the Island’s economic engine, and the seemingly magnanimous way it treated its workers and the community.
Now its reputation lies in tatters, and deservedly so.
The most consequential thing it left Long Island, it turns out, was the monstrous plume of contamination infecting Long Island’s sole-source aquifer, a plume created by chemicals Grumman dumped on its 600-acre site, a plume packed with carcinogens that now threatens the drinking water of 250,000 residents of Nassau County.
That would have been stain enough. But the horror of this story lies in the deliberate deception practiced by Grumman, which allowed the plume to grow and put ever more people at risk. The deception — unmasked by Newsday in its meticulously documented investigation, “The Grumman Plume: Decades of Deceit” — was undeniable. It was relentless. It was and will be catastrophically costly. And it left generations of local residents worried about the water they drink and its impact on their health and that of their children.
It is difficult to imagine a more comprehensive compendium of corporate bad behavior. As early as 1955, the Nassau County health department said toxic waste from Grumman could contaminate drinking water wells “a considerable distance” away. By the mid-1970s, the company knew for sure its chemicals were polluting groundwater. But for decades, Grumman denied the existence of the plume, the extent of the plume, its role in creating the plume, and the threat the plume posed to residents. Documents gathered by reporters Paul LaRocco and David M. Schwartz show that Grumman outright lied. It withheld information. It hid data. It co-opted elected officials. It minimized risks and concerns. It blamed another contractor for the pollution. It even tried to discredit its own information — all of it done to try to limit its culpability, liability and costs.
At every juncture, when faced with doing the right thing, Grumman chose to do the wrong thing.
Joining Grumman in its duplicity — at various times and to varying degrees — were the U.S. Navy, which owned part of Grumman’s facility, Nassau County health officials and, most prominently and most shamefully because it was the watchdog, the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
Now, the DEC under Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Commissioner Basil Seggos is riding herd on Grumman’s successor, Northrop Grumman, and the Navy, holding them accountable, pushing a $585 million containment plan for 24 wells and treatment systems operating for 110 years, and putting up the money while promising to seek reimbursement from both bad actors. That is to its credit. But for many years in the past, the agency was allied with Grumman. It adopted the company’s reports as its own, and minimized the risk.
The conclusion is clear: Had Grumman started vigorous cleanup efforts when it knew the plume existed, the contamination wouldn’t be nearly the problem it is today.
The plume is now a monster — 4.3 miles long, 2.1 miles wide and 900 feet deep. It moves one foot per day, and has traveled south of the Southern State Parkway. It contains a devil’s brew of insidious substances, including 13 known, likely or suspected carcinogens. Local taxpayers have shelled out more than $50 million so far to keep their drinking water clean.
Beyond the plume
But the plume also has taken a personal toll, especially in Bethpage, where home values have suffered and residents have never received sufficient answers to questions about whether the contamination caused the cancers suffered by many in the community. Such factors deepen the sense of institutional betrayal.
Grumman once was a source of pride, Long Island’s largest employer with 20,000 workers. Its constellation of related businesses was endless. It made the lunar landing module and World War II Hellcat fighter jets, sponsored youth sports teams and hosted massive company picnics.
What Grumman did is a lesson about the zealous pursuit of corporate profits. It’s a cautionary tale about regulators becoming too friendly with those they regulate, and about elected officials turning a blind eye. And it’s a warning about future discoveries of contamination: There is a tremendous cost to delaying needed cleanups.
The road forward is clear. The state DEC, moved to action by a 2014 bill from then-State Assemb. Joseph Saladino requiring a feasibility study on a well plan similar to the one adopted, must not let up on its cleanup plan. It must keep pushing Grumman and the Navy to pay the ghastly cost of their mess. Sen. Chuck Schumer and Rep. Tom Suozzi should keep the heat on the Navy. A definitive cancer study should be done, and Grumman and the Navy should pay for it; Bethpage residents deserve answers after all these years.
Grumman’s lunar module still sits proudly on the surface of the moon. The company’s toxic chemicals lurk silently beneath the surface of Long Island. Both bear the stamp, “Made in Bethpage, New York.”
That is Grumman’s true legacy, and its forever shame.
— The editorial board
Correction: This editorial has been updated to correctly describe one Grumman product as Hellcat fighter aircraft.