A plume of toxic chemicals has been spreading slowly underground near the former Northrop Grumman plant in Bethpage, N.Y., for 60 years. It was formed by a chemical that the defense contractor used to build fighter jets for the U.S. Navy.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced Thursday that the state began testing ground water in Massapequa, which sits in the plume’s path between the old plant and the ocean, to see if and when the plume might pose a danger to people who live nearby.
Tony Becker, a former engineer who worked at the Grumman plant in the late 60s, said that, at the time, there wasn’t much concern about environmental contamination.
“We were making jobs. The government was buying the jets. It was all about Vietnam. That was it,” Becker said.
One chemical used at the plant was trichloroethylene (TCE), a lubricant that is now known to be a carcinogen. TCE seeped into the groundwater for years.
Becker now lives in Massapequa with his son Anthony, who recently graduated from Fordham University, where he studied Long Island water issues. Anthony Becker believes the plume will eventually reach Massapequa. As a precaution, he uses a Brita filter when drinking tap water.
Long Islanders, like the Becker family, rely on groundwater. That water comes from an aquifer that provides drinking water to a majority of Nassau County and half of Suffolk County.
But, the entire aquifer is not in danger of becoming contaminated.
“The flow of water tends to be confined in fairly narrow strings, so contamination at one point will exist as a plume, a long narrow feather of contaminated water, flowing slowly towards the shoreline,” said Henry Bokuniewicz, head of the Long Island Groundwater Research Institute at Stony Brook University.
Grumman started paying for the treatment of groundwater in affected areas in 1990. Since then, Grumman and the U.S. Navy have continued to identify and treat other areas in and around Bethpage that have tested for high levels of TCE.
Some believe Northrop Grumman and the Navy should be doing more.
“They don’t want to intercept the plume, filter it, and treat it before it gets to the drinking water wells. Instead, they want it to actually get to the drinking wells that service hundreds of thousands of people and treat at that point,” President of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, Jennifer Esposito, said.
Assemblyman Joseph Saladino, whose district includes portions of Massapequa, agrees that more should be done. At a press conference in Massapequa along with U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer (D- N.Y.), Saladino called for the construction of a $70 million groundwater treatment facility, which he said would be largely funded by Northrop Grumman and the Navy.
“That facility would have to be up for 35 years, and we would clean up every part of the aquifer system that our children, our great grandchildren and our great, great grandchildren will be enjoying for years to come,” Saladino said.
The Navy and Northrop Grumman have not agreed to fund a new facility, but they both say they will continue to test and treat groundwater in affected areas. In a statement, the Navy said it “routinely shares its groundwater data with the regulators, water districts, and the public.”
Cuomo’s order has essentially fast-tracked access to wells along with new state testing. The Massapequa Water District hopes to begin its own testing next month.
“This is great news that signals we are moving closer toward getting the plume cleaned up responsibly, ethically, and completely," Saladino said.
This story was produced through a collaboration between WSHU and Stony Brook University's School of Journalism.