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Clean drinking water finally a priority

Sen. Chuck Schumer, on Jan. 25, 2016, with

Sen. Chuck Schumer, on Jan. 25, 2016, with a map of the plume in Nassau County, calls on the U.S. Navy and Northrop Grumman to share data from their monitoring wells with all affected Long Island Water Districts at the Massapequa Water District Pump Station. Credit: Steve Pfost

The more eyes on a problem, the better. So we applaud the recent passage and signing of a federal water infrastructure bill that requires the secretary of Navy to report to Congress annually on the groundwater plumes in Bethpage.

A provision written by Sen. Chuck Schumer forces the Navy to map the plumes coming from the former manufacturing facilities run by the Navy and Northrop Grumman and devise ways to prevent them from contaminating more water supplies. It’s an important step toward accountability — by involving Congress in the process and mandating that the Navy report include sites being remediated by Northrop, which has been more reluctant to share information. If the Navy and Northrop miss deadlines and benchmarks, congressional heat can move things along.

The legislation is the latest in a series of positive developments after decades of frustrating and destructive inactivity. State and federal officials are now working together to ensure the cleanup is progressing.

It’s important to remember how difficult it was to get to this point. And how the longest part of the plume is now more than 4 miles long. And how the DEC’s initial estimate last summer was that treatment would cost nearly $600 million and take up to 100 years. And how the Bethpage Water District is still trying to get Grumman and the Navy to reimburse it for the millions of dollars it has spent so far on treating its water, a huge burden on thousands of customers.

That underscores the importance of quickly addressing contamination when it does occur. It’s a vital lesson given the discovery of high levels of the banned gasoline additive MTBE in two private wells in Manorville, and the recent connection to municipal water of dozens of homes in Westhampton Beach whose private wells were threatened by or contaminated with the chemical PFOS from nearby Gabreski Air National Guard Base.

It’s also critical with the discovery of the probable carcinogen 1,4-Dioxane, a solvent also used in personal care products, in wells across Long Island. It is more prevalent here than elsewhere in the state; the highest concentration in the nation is in Hicksville. New York, like many states, doesn’t have a drinking water standard for 1,4-Dioxane, and there is no federal limit. The lack of federal and state guidance on emerging contaminants like 1,4-Dioxane is a problem.

The EPA requires large water suppliers every five years to test for a changing list of up to 30 unregulated contaminants it deems worthy of further monitoring. That’s not good enough. State Sen. Kemp Hannon (R-Garden City) is proposing legislation to remedy this that stems from hearings the Senate Health Committee chairman held last year on Long Island and upstate on water quality and contamination. He wants to create a state drinking water quality institute that would develop a list of contaminants for testing and establish maximum levels. It’s a good idea, provided it’s properly funded and staffed, maintains its focus on drinking water, and is autonomous, whether it is an independent agency or, preferably, part of the DEC.

Clean drinking water is critical. The lessons of Bethpage are clear. The shame is not learning from them.— The editorial board