State environmental officials are checking for radioactive contamination at 43 Long Island Superfund sites that hosted defense and military work, as well as 10 landfills where waste from those facilities might have been dumped.
That’s both reassuring and alarming.
It’s good that the state Department of Environmental Conservation is acting decisively and thoroughly on reports of radium detections associated with the Bethpage facility run by Northrop Grumman Corp. and the U.S. Navy, and the old Lockheed Martin-Sperry Gyroscope plant in Lake Success.
But the idea that the region’s sole-source aquifer might be threatened by radioactive contamination is distressing, as is the fact that it took so long to get to this point.
In 2013, the Bethpage Water District shut down a well because of elevated radium levels. The district notified the state, which contacted Northrop Grumman, which denied any radium usage. And the matter languished. Under current Commissioner Basil Seggos, the DEC has adopted a more aggressive strategy in dealing with Northrop Grumman, which has been notorious for its lack of cooperation, and in 2016 he ordered the company to report on the possible use of radioactive materials at the site.
The DEC got the report in October and, though not as detailed as requested, it divulged that dozens of radioactive isotopes like radium, uranium, tritium and polonium were handled by the military contractor from 1960 to 2015. But the report was made public only recently, and only after Newsday reporter Emily Dooley filed a Freedom of Information Law request and revealed its findings. The DEC has to carefully evaluate such reports, but it took too long to notify the public.
The expanded testing program is the kind of comprehensive response the agency should have when it learns something new. So far, the DEC says checks at the Northrop Grumman site have found nothing alarming. Most of the Lake Success site similarly has been cleared. But the agency is so concerned that it is expanding its testing to Superfund sites statewide, a smart move. Thursday, the DEC also will begin to drill more monitoring wells at the leading edge of the plume as the agency explores more options to contain its spread.
Meanwhile, Sen. Chuck Schumer has continued his pressure, asking Defense Secretary James Mattis in a one-on-one meeting that the Navy report on radioactive materials used at the Bethpage site and more quickly reimburse local water districts for cleanup costs. To that end, Reps. Thomas Suozzi and Peter King secured passage of an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that increases by $42 million the money the Navy uses for remediation nationwide, and Suozzi is working with the Department of Defense to move the Navy-Northrop Grumman plume higher on the priority list for that funding.
The lessons here are clear. Northrop Grumman still has not proved it can be trusted. The DEC must maintain its aggressive posture and be even more transparent. The threats to our aquifer are many, so our vigilance must be constant.