Contamination Found In Public Water Sources In Westhampton And Quiogue
By Erin McKinley, originally posted on November 8, 2016
Everything seemed perfect when Wesley and Daniela Bennett moved into their new Quiogue home in April.
The couple and their two children—Tyler, 7, and Sofia, 1—were thrilled with their decision, with Ms. Bennett explaining that they spent countless hours researching their new hometown, including checking out local schools, and searching the public record for any potential safety concerns before closing on their Peters Lane property.
That is why she says she was shocked to learn three months after moving in that contaminants from nearby Francis S. Gabreski Airport actually had been found in the public water supplying her home, as well as others in the area, three years earlier, in 2013.
Further alarming her was the fact that she only learned about the contamination—and the Suffolk County Water Authority’s decision to remedy it with the installation of carbon filters, and by “blending,” or mixing, water from multiple aquifers—after word began to spread earlier this year that the same chemicals had possibly tainted several dozen private wells near the Westhampton airport, a former Army Air Force base that is now home to the Air National Guard’s 106th Rescue Wing.
That discovery prompted her to do additional research—and that is when she learned, after reading the 2016 Suffolk County Water Authority Drinking Water Quality Report, that two of the same chemicals had been found in as many as eight public water wells servicing the communities of Quiogue and Westhampton. Both of those chemicals—perfluorooctane sulfonate, or PFOS, and perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA—have also been found in eight private wells in the area.
Authorities have traced the chemicals—which have caused tumors in animal studies, as well as ill effects on the livers, kidneys and immune systems of other small animals, according to the Environmental Protection Agency—to a fire suppression foam commonly used during drills at Gabreski Airport in the 1950s and 1960s, though the EPA began requiring tests for them only within the past two or three years after recognizing that they could pose a danger to people. Investigators are still trying to pinpoint the exact source of the contamination, though they’ve previously stated that it will most likely be traced back to the base, part of which has been declared a Superfund site.
The state announced this weekend that it will pay to connect those with contaminated private wells to the SCWA public water system. But Ms. Bennett’s discovery suggests a larger concern: Until it was found via testing three years ago, SCWA customers in the area could have been drinking water contaminated by the same chemicals for years, possibly decades.
“I’m upset the Suffolk County Water Authority isn’t addressing this,” said Ms. Bennett, explaining that she is angry that officials never alerted those on public water to the potential danger. “I called the County Health Department and the Water Authority, and was told they installed granulated carbon filters, but I don’t see a record of that or anything.
“They just keep brushing me off,” she continued, “but it is alarming that this is public water.”
Tim Motz, director of communications for the SCWA, confirmed this week that the agency did find both chemicals in the public water wells supplying the two hamlets three years earlier during testing prompted by the passage of new Environmental Protection Agency regulations. He added that the SCWA immediately installed granular activated carbon filters—well before the new standards took effect this past April—to purify the water and, in some instances, began the blending of water from several wells to dilute the amount of chemicals in the water. He added that his agency has spent millions of dollars to install the new filters even though they were not yet required to do so.
Mr. Motz noted that the highest amounts of the contaminants—readings registering at 2.44 parts per billion, or ppb, about 35 times the EPA’s recommendation that both come in below 0.07 ppb—were found in three public water supply wells near Meetinghouse Road on Quiogue.
He added that all of the affected wells are now producing water that is within the EPA standards, though he did note that three of the wells cannot be tapped in the winter as the carbon filters are housed outdoors and, therefore, exposed to the elements. As a result, those need to be shut down in the winter months, and the SCWA pumps in the required water from other sources.
“The Suffolk County Water Authority has proactively tested for the presence of PFOS and PFOA in the wells south of Gabreski Airport since 2013, and regulators have used information we’ve provided to establish a health advisory,” Mr. Motz said in a prepared statement. “Prior to the advisory, we addressed detections of these chemicals by either removing wells from service or blending water sources. We now have treatment in place to remove any detected levels of these chemicals from the water supply and, as a result, we’ve had no further detections.”
He did not explain why the SCWA never alerted homeowners about the contamination. He also said it is difficult to calculate how many homes and businesses are being supplied water from the eight wells, noting that they often work together to supply a designated area.
Though the contamination, if it is confirmed that it came from the Gabreski site, could date back half a century, its presence was made known only earlier in July, when the EPA alerted local authorities. In response, the Suffolk County Health Department began testing private wells in the area after officials made a point of stating that those hooked up to public water supplies do not have to worry about the contamination.
Officials previously stated that eight private wells in the area have been compromised due to the chemicals, though the State Department of Environmental Conservation announced on Saturday that it will pay for 57 homes in Westhampton and Westhampton Beach to be connected with public water supplies, a move that suggests that their wells could also be threatened by the plume. Additionally, it was also announced that the Department of Defense will be paying for an additional nine homes in the area to be hooked up to county water.
All of the hookups are expected to be finished by the end of the year. Also, all of the affected homes are located south of the railroad tracks in Westhampton Beach, and between Beaverdam Creek in Westhampton and Quantuck Creek on the Quogue Village border.
“The DEC is working aggressively to protect the public and the environment whenever and wherever contamination is found and to hold polluters accountable for their actions,” DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos said in a statement. “With the State Superfund declaration of the Air National Guard Base at Gabreski Airport, DEC, in consultation with the Department of Health, will direct and oversee the Department of Defense as it conducts a full site investigation into the nature and extent of the PFOS contamination and develops necessary remedial action plans to mitigate human exposure to site-related contaminants.”
In September, Gabreski Airport was designated a Class 2 Superfund Site—the second-worst designation based on the DEC’s rating system for polluted properties. As part of that designation, the DEC placed blame for the contamination on the U.S. Department of Defense, which is why it is being forced to pay for the connection of nine homes in the area.
But some people are wondering if the carbon filters are enough to protect people from the chemicals.
This week, Defend H20 founder Kevin McAllister explained that long-term exposure can harm the nervous and immune systems, pointing to recent studies in which mice, rats and monkeys were exposed to the chemicals. He is also concerned that the chemicals will continue flowing south through the groundwater, potentially endangering Quantuck and Aspatuck creeks. He explained that smaller marine organisms, which are typically eaten by larger species, could be negatively affected by such exposure.
“I think it is significant to have public water supplies affected from the plume,” he said. “It is kind of a new pollutant that the EPA, and states are only just paying attention to now so they don’t know what it means for public health.”
As for the Bennett family, they are not taking any chances. They stopped drinking and cooking with public water, in spite of the reassurances from the SCWA that it is now safe. They now get all of their water from a 5-gallon filtered water system that they recently had installed in their home.
Ms. Bennett also said she is furious with the SCWA for failing to alert her and her neighbors about the problem, adding that little is known about the potential effects of long-term exposure to the chemicals. As a nursing mother, Ms. Bennett said she is worried for the welfare of her youngest child.
“I have been nursing my baby since we moved here and I think that when I started reading more into that it really struck home because it is just a really big shock,” she said. “It can cause birth defects and can cause cancer in children—there are so many children on this block and all of these contaminants are affecting them, too.
“All of these horrible things can happen, and it is not being brought to anyone’s attention,” Ms. Bennett added. “It is outrageous, and I am upset that my children have now been exposed to it.”