County: No telling where Grumman pollution ends
Testing reveals chemicals deep in Calverton groundwater
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A plume of contaminated groundwater that stretches south of the former Northrop Grumman plant in Calverton may be much larger -- and run much deeper -- than originally suspected, according to the Suffolk County health department.
"We found contamination in all the new wells," said Andrew Rapiejko, a health department geologist who oversaw a second round of testing this spring near the former naval weapons facility.
"Typically, you would like to see the end of a plume; you drill until you get a couple of wells that are clean and that's when you know you've found the end."
"We haven't done that yet," he said.
Health department officials, whose initiative was launched last summer based on previous -- but limited -- findings by the U.S. Navy, are also troubled by the potential depth of the plume. As deep as they could drill in Calverton -- 115 feet -- county workers continued to find traces of volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, in the groundwater.
"It's getting to the deeper aquifer, and that would be a concern," Mr. Rapiejko said, "because then it could travel farther, potentially under the [Peconic] river for a distance before finding a discharge into the river. The deeper it goes, the longer it's going to travel before it discharges."
Community members fear the potential heart of the decades-old plume is heading right for the Peconic River, though Navy officials believe the materials are naturally dissipating as they head east toward the river.
The plume contains trichloroethane, an industrial solvent, and chloroethane, a gasoline additive, as well as their chemical byproducts and other VOCs.
It likely originated from the naval weapons plant, built in 1954, where Grumman workers for years used strong compounds to clear grease from jet engines, Navy officials say.
Grumman operations ended in February 1996. Two years later, the Navy turned most of its property over to Riverhead Town and the state, except for some 350 acres still in need of environmental cleanup.
Last year, during a first round of testing, county health department workers found startlingly high concentrations of VOCs in 24 wells just south of the Navy property along River Road. An additional 28 test wells were then drilled this spring.
The News-Review acquired the results of those tests this week.
The 28 newer test wells stretch farther east along River Road, south along Connecticut Avenue and south along a service road on Peconic River Sportsman's Club property.
(One drinking water well at the sportsman's club has already been shut down due to VOC contamination, and others there are being monitored by the health department and Navy. There are no homes in the immediate area.)
In each of the new test wells, county health department workers "grabbed" water samples from several different depths.
A well just south of River Road, called PRSC-2 SEE MAP tested as high as 1,030 micrograms per liter of VOCs at 35 to 40 feet deep. Two other wells turned up 539 micrograms per liter (PRSC-3, at 30 to 35 feet) and 232 micrograms per liter (GB-28, at 45 to 50 feet).
State drinking water standards are 5 micrograms per liter.
GB-28, along Connecticut Avenue, also tested for 143.7 micrograms per liter at 55 to 60 feet, a number Mr. Rapiejko said especially concerned him, not only because of the high concentrations, but because of the depth.
Based on their findings, health department workers decided to use an auger machine to drill even deeper, and found trace amounts of VOCs as deep as 90 to 115 feet deep in a well called PRSC-8 Auger.
When the News-Review first reported on the plume in March, county officials said they were taking the position that the Navy must remediate the contamination.
Mr. Rapiejko said the county's position has not changed with the new findings.
"The data that we found in this round is consistent with what we found the first time," he said.
Although the Navy would foot any cleanup bill, the state Department of Environmental Conservation would have to approve and oversee any remedial actions.
A DEC spokeswoman said the agency could not offer an immediate comment or assessment of the county's figures, because they had not yet received them.
"Our engineers have yet to see those numbers," said the spokeswoman, Aphrodite Montalvo.
In the years prior to the county's investigation, the Navy had contended that the VOCs were dissipating naturally as they flowed away from the suspected contamination sources on Navy property, a process called natural attenuation.
Even with the new numbers, Navy officials do not expect to change their position, a spokesman said, unless there appears to be "an unacceptable impact on the river."
"The Navy believes there is sufficient information to proceed with a natural attenuation and monitoring remedy for the off-site groundwater plume that is provided in the draft Corrective Measures Study (CMS)," said the spokesman, James Brantley, on Wednesday. "However, it acknowledges that additional data are needed to determine remedies to address the contaminant source areas."
"The focus of the Navy's groundwater investigation is to fill data gaps to support identification of source area removal actions," he continued. "The Navy does not expect a different remedy from the CMS would be needed unless there is an unacceptable impact to the river."
The Navy will be using the county's research to figure where best to place permanent monitoring wells, to better track the plume's flow, Mr. Brantley said, and noted that the Navy is currently cleaning and treating its land to the north.
Meanwhile, the community members who sit on the Navy's Restoration Advisory Board -- a group that meets every few months to discuss cleanup at the site -- have been especially critical of the DEC, saying the agency hasn't been vocal or forceful enough in demanding the Navy act more swiftly to assess and clean the plume.
Under the state's Wild, Scenic and Recreational Rivers Act, community members contend, it's illegal to knowingly allow VOCs to slip into the protected Peconic River. And thus, the DEC should consider mandating that the Navy clean the site immediately.
Senator Charles Schumer (D-New York), meanwhile, has been pushing the Navy to not only take immediate steps to clean up the mess, but reimburse Suffolk County for its efforts.
As for the county's latest test numbers, Bill Gunther, community co-chair on the advisory board, said he shared the county health department's growing concerns.
"We don't have a defined boundary and we don't know where the end of the plume is, and how deep," Mr. Gunther said. "All along we thought it was just a spot here and a spot there and that it wasn't an extensive plume. Now we're not so sure, because the wells keep turning up contamination and more work has to be done.
"And it shouldn't be the county doing it," he added. "It should be the Navy."
The next Restoration Advisory Board meeting, at which the matter will be discussed extensively by all parties, is tentatively scheduled for Aug. 6.
Short-term exposure to high levels of some VOCs can cause headaches, dizziness, light-headedness, drowsiness, nausea and eye and respiratory irritation. These effects usually go away after the exposure stops. In laboratory animals, long-term exposure to high levels of some VOCs has caused cancer and affected the liver, kidney and nervous system.
Source: New York State Department of Health
See previous coverage:
[Toxic plume poses threat to Peconic River]
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