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New York forces Brookhaven to address toxic plume coming from its landfill

Brookhaven Landfill rises behind the Frank P. Long Intermediate School and playground in North Bellport.
Ashley Pavlakis
Brookhaven Landfill rises behind the Frank P. Long Intermediate School and playground in North Bellport.

An underground plume of PFAS and other dangerous chemicals has emanated from the Brookhaven Landfill for decades. The Town of Brookhaven is now ordered to measure how far they must go to remediate affected drinking water sources.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation notified the town that it must start a process to assess the size and characteristics of the toxic plume coming from its landfill in Yaphank.

The order comes after surveys by the Suffolk County Department of Health Services of nearby drinking water sources that are downgradient from the landfill detected emerging contaminants PFAS, 1,4-Dioxane and other chemicals.

According to the notice from the Office of Environmental Justice, the town must hold a public meeting to gather comments to develop and evaluate the containment and remediation of the landfill plume, including from local and state elected officials, municipalities, water district, schools and community members.

The Town of Brookhaven has not responded to requests for comment. Alanah Keddell-Tuckey, director of the Office of Environmental Justice, said the state agency will “continue to oversee landfill operations, including regular inspections during the investigation.”

“DEC will ultimately approve the corrective measures to be implemented,” she said in the notice.

Correcting the plume

Brookhaven NAACP President Georgette Grier-Key said transparency and community involvement for environmental review has been a weak point for the town.

“No one is paying attention. There is no one who has their hand on the wheel, except for the community that keeps asking for comprehensive planning,” she said.

Grier-Key and nearby residents — who formed the Brookhaven Landfill Action and Remediation Group (BLARG) in 2020 — have called for the immediate closure and clean up of the facility for decades.

“I hope that this really shines a light on the work that has not been done by the town, and that there needs to be close attention paid to this,” she said

“How do we continue to dump on this community,” Grier-Key asked.

This year alone, during town meetings, community members have repeatedly called for a special public hearing on the future of the landfill and a shift to zero waste. Members of the Brookhaven NAACP claim they have not been able to have a forum with town officials in nearly two years.

Yet, the town — which is home to one of two remaining landfills on Long Island — has lacked an updated local solid waste management plan, which should incorporate contamination mitigation and remediation strategies, since 2009, according to the state.

“This is what we at BLARG have been trying to get across to our local politicians for years but our pleas for help have gone answered,” said Dennis Nix, a co-founder of the group. “As a resident and former employee of the Brookhaven Landfill, it’s like an ‘I told you so’ moment.”

The town is planning to sunset the facility accepting construction and demolition debris by the end of 2024 and then continue to take trash that is burned into ash at waste-to-energy facilities until capacity is reached in at least two years. However, estimates could push the final closure of the landfill to 2028.

“We cannot wait for 2028,” Nix said.

The process of evaluating the characteristics of a toxic plume is a long one. Adrienne Esposito, executive director of the Citizens Campaign for the Environment, said previous attempts had been made to investigate and work out a plan years ago when the first four of seven cells of the landfill released ammonia and heavy metals in waterways.

“The plume is a very serious issue, not only because of drinking water, but because of the fact that it drains out into all-freshwater Carmens River and our marine environment in the [Great South Bay]. So there's a lot to worry about here and to plan for and to be aggressive on the cleanup action."

A lot of the original contamination was from household waste that was dumped in the landfill in the 1980 and 1990s. Volatile organic chemicals seep down into the groundwater to create a plume. The fifth, sixth and seventh landfill cells are lined, but are under constant monitoring.

“I will never forget the time when the landfill liner was exposed, and water was just flowing through the torn lining. All we could do was use sandbags to slow the flow of the contaminated water as other crew members tried to patch it up,” said Nix, a former landfill employee.

With more technology now to contain facility emissions and being able to detect emerging contaminants in drinking water, Esposito said there are a host of new variables to consider.

“We didn't even know about these emerging contaminants, but the numbers were low at that time. And as the plume went south, the number of volatile organic chemicals got lower, because some of that ammonia and nitrogen would become diluted and disperse. But that doesn't really happen with 1,4-Dioxane and PFAS,” she said. “So now that they're testing for these new chemicals, this is a new area of concern that existed all along.

“Science is just catching up with reality.”

Water testing

Since 2017, one of three public wells, part of the Suffolk County Water Authority west of the landfill on Station Road serving North Bellport, has been treated for PFAS levels more than six times the state’s drinking water standard of 10 parts per trillion.

That is the equivalent of 10 droplets of water in an Olympic sized swimming pool. But according to the Environmental Protection Agency, even tiny amounts of PFAS, known as “forever chemicals” for the centuries they take to break down in the environment, can pose a risk.

Now, all three wells remain below the current drinking water standard — at between 3 and 9 parts per trillion. Proposed federal and state changes to drinking water standards would require 4 parts per trillion.

Nearly two dozen homes put at risk by the plume have had to be connected to public water or provided with treatment systems. The Suffolk County Water Authority has submitted grant applications to the state to help pay for the extension of public water to homes on private wells in the area, and installing more activated carbon to filter the other two public wells on Station Road.

“We are looking to be proactive here beyond state and federal regulations,” said Daniel Dubois, the authority’s director of external affairs.

Residents can contact the water authority to receive testing.

A county health spokesperson said the department "is currently conducting a groundwater investigation into potential source(s) of PFAS upgradient of the Station Road wellfield."

Still, nearly 30 lawsuits in recent years have sought to challenge the environmental and health impact of the landfill on the nearby community.

A native Long Islander, J.D. is WSHU's managing editor. He also hosts the climate podcast Higher Ground. J.D. reports for public radio stations across the Northeast, is a journalism educator and proud SPJ member.