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Gillibrand’s Clean Water Bill Isn’t A Moment Too Soon For Calverton Homes Polluted With PFAS

Calverton resident Clare Bennett holds two jugs of water: one from the grocery store and the other from her tap.
Image Courtesy Citizens Campaign for the Environment
Calverton resident Clare Bennett holds two jugs of water: one from the grocery store and the other from her tap.

U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) has reintroduced legislation that would more strictly regulate groundwater for PFAS chemicals. PFAS contamination has been detected in 49 states across the country. Homeowners in Calverton, Long Island, who live near a former naval defense manufacturer know the impacts of the contamination well.

The latest analysis by Suffolk County Department of Health Services shows PFAS was detected in nearly 15% of private drinking wells tested in Calverton. Lawn signs now cover Calverton homes calling for the Navy to step in to remediate their contaminated private drinking water wells.

The former Northrop Grumman weapons plant was contracted by the Navy to help build fighter jets during the Vietnam War. The dumping of manufacturing waste, and a jet crash in the 1970s, contributed to the contamination of the groundwater. The site was later a training ground where firefighting foam that contained PFAS was used. Over the decades, the toxic plume spread into nearby private drinking water wells in Calverton.

“In New York, and in almost every state in the country, communities like Calverton have had their water supplies needlessly polluted by toxic PFAS chemicals,” Gillibrand said.

Gillibrand said there are no federal regulations that limit how much PFAS polluters can discharge into the environment. She said left unchecked, the toxins can endanger public health and are linked to cancers. The measure lost momentum last year due to the pandemic, but environmentalists see other fault lines, including the sheer cost of remediation.

Gillibrand said her bill would help shift the burden of “costly clean-up efforts” off of the communities and on to the “companies responsible for the contamination.”

“By developing effluent limitations guidelines and clear standards for all measurable PFAS, we can stop PFAS at the source and prevent contamination of our drinking water,” she said.

Residents and environmentalists have for years pressured the Navy to clean up the contamination. Over the past year, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY) made separate attempts to urge the Navy to develop a plan to bring public water to the area. They also pressured the Navy to accept responsibility for the contamination to better expand its investigation into PFAS flowing from the facility.

The Navy has already set up a restoration advisory board with the goal of having up to 20 citizen members to help inform the process. But the Navy is compelled to follow the federally mandated cleanup process.

Over 9,000 different compounds are included under the umbrella of PFAS chemicals, including PFOA, which is found in nonstick and stain-resistant products, and PFOS, which is found in firefighting foams, said Phil Brown, professor of sociology and health sciences at Northeastern University.

“It's a crisis that's only recently gotten the national attention and a very incredible example of the public's environmental health literacy and activism. It is a really large change in the regulatory climate, especially at the state level growth in science and an enormous amount of social science collaboration with environmental health science,” Brown said during a recent roundtable with environmentalists to identify steps the EPA should take to regulate PFAS.

The panel overwhelmingly supported efforts by the New York Congressional delegation to update federal limits on PFAS and recent statewide measures.

New York adopted a standard last summer of 10 parts per trillion for PFAS. Four of the 95 wells tested by the county last year showed levels above that standard. Ten wells had some detections of the compounds, but below the state standard.

Navy testing also shows levels over 30 times the state limit. Adrienne Esposito, the executive director of the Citizens Campaign for the Environment, said the problem has been the Navy’s reluctance to recognize the state standard. The Navy acknowledges the federal standard of 70 parts per trillion, set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Suffolk County has found levels above that standard, too.

“Literally, it's like the wild west of water,” Esposito said, referring to the differing water quality standards and regulations around products that contain PFAS. “It illustrates that prevention is much easier than cleaning it up afterwards. But in this case, we didn't know. We didn't know that firefighting foam had this chemical. And so the solution and the remedy is not going to be that easy.”

Christopher Stellars, an environmental historian at Stony Brook University who moderated the panel, said Long Island now plays a central role in the process of updating federal standards because of the “contaminated areas of concerns.”

Esposito keeps track of these contamination sites, to name a few:

  • Francis S. Gabreski Airport
  • East Hampton Airport
  • Hampton Bays Fire Station
  • Suffolk County Firematics Training Facility in Yaphank
  • Brookhaven National Laboratory
  • Rowe Industries in Sag Harbor
  • Former Northrop Grumman facility in Bethpage

“It turns out they slipped underneath the radar screen of the EPA and environmental laws in the 1960s and '70s even as Long Islanders played leading roles in the tackling of DDT and other of the environmental toxins that were known to that era,” Stellars said. “It does feel entirely fitting at least for me as a historian that Long Island is now becoming recognized as a ground zero for the dangers from PFAS, even as today's federal government has been dragging its heels in confronting them.”
Data from the Environmental Working Group shows that PFAS contamination has been detected in every state other than Hawaii, especially near military and industrial sites. More than one million New Yorkers are served by drinking water systems where PFAS chemicals have been detected.

“EPA does not even define PFAS,” said Kyla Bennett, science policy director at Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. “They just simply don't have a definition anywhere on their website. And the United Nations Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development does have a very good definition of PFAS, which is ‘any compound containing at least one fluorinated carbon.’ EPA can start with that.”

Bennett said identity matters as environmentalists, elected officials and residents press the EPA to strengthen its standards. A new approach, she said, could be the “persistent persistence sufficient approach.”

“EPA will regulate chemicals that are persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic,” Bennett said. “And what we think is that PFAS are so persistent. And we haven't found one yet that's not toxic. So we should be regulating them all solely because they are so persistent in the environment and we have no way to destroy them.”

The bill would authorize $200 million per year for grants to assist publicly-owned treatment projects through the EPA. The Suffolk County Water Authority said it is prepared to connect 28 Calverton homes with clean water provided there is federal funding. It would cost $12 million to connect private service lines for each home.

“We call them ‘forever chemicals’ because this is so hard to get rid of,” Esposito said.

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.