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May 15, 2018 1:29 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Private Sagaponack Well Shows Traces Of Contamination

Merryl Sherman of Sagaponack said her private wells are contaminated with PFOA and PFOS from the East Hampton Airport in Wainscott. AMANDA BERNOCCO
May 15, 2018 2:00 PM

The news was everywhere.

Merryl Sherman said it felt as if she were constantly reading the same story: A group of residents with private wells finds that their water is contaminated by a pair of unregulated chemicals called perfluorooctane sulfonate, or PFOS, and perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA.

Adding to her concern, some of the residents were only a hop, skip and a jump from her part-time residence—and future retirement home—in Sagaponack.

Ms. Sherman, whose home is served by a private well, decided to shell out about $400 and test her own well, just in case. Her fears became reality when the results came in: There were traces of PFOS and PFOA in her water.

“I don’t know what to do,” Ms. Sherman said during an interview in her Daniels Lane home.

Her situation rings a little differently from those hundreds of homeowners near Francis S. Gabreski Airport in Westhampton, near a former municipal landfill in East Quogue, and near the East Hampton Airport in Wainscott—all of whom had traces of the chemicals in their wells.

County and state officials believe the contamination came from a firefighting foam that used to be used during training exercises. PFOS and PFOA were also detected in two Hampton Bays Water District wells, but officials said those wells had been shut down before the contamination reached customers.

In Wainscott, Westhampton and East Quogue, free water bottles were distributed to homeowners by either county or town officials, depending on the jurisdiction of the suspected source of the chemicals, when they were advised to stop drinking their well water. In some cases, officials offered free well testing and to connect the homeowners to public water at no cost.

Ms. Sherman received none of this assistance.

“I think I’m probably more affected by whatever is going on in Wainscott,” speculated Ms. Sherman, who has lived in her Sagaponack Village home, which is a short walk from the border between East Hampton and Southampton towns, for the past 18 years. While she declares New York City as her primary residence, she lives in Sagaponack all summer and most weekends throughout the year.

The Suffolk County Department of Health discovered last year that a number of wells in East Hampton Town were contaminated with PFOS and PFOA. East Hampton Airport in Wainscott has been seen as a likely source of the contamination, because firefighting supplies that contain the two compounds have been stored at the property for decades, and because there is a firefighter training facility on town-owned property adjacent to the airport—though an official source of the contamination has yet to be identified.

The State Department of Environmental Conservation previously identified 246 residential properties as of concern in the region, which runs from the airport to just south of Montauk Highway between Townline Road and Daniels Hole Road.

Townline Road is Ms. Sherman’s cross street.

“Right now, I’m in Southampton [Town], and it’s right across the town line—which is right down the road down there,” she said with frustration. “I don’t think the water flow actually knows where the town line is. I’m concerned.”

Her well had 0.0067 parts per billion of PFOA; 0.070 parts per billion of PFOA is the health advisory level, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, so her reading is actually significantly below the current threshold for concern.

“They told me that this is not an amount to be concerned with,” Ms. Sherman said, referring to a conversation she had with someone at the Suffolk County Health Department. “But I don’t know what I should be concerned with. I may not want any of it.”

A DEC spokesperson in Albany acknowledged in an emailed statement that the department is aware of one property in Sagaponack that has shown a low-level presence of PFOA, below the EPA health advisory level. The property is located outside the current survey area, and it does not appear to be down-gradient of the East Hampton Airport site—a key factor in deciding whether the pollution from the airport might have migrated in that direction underground.

A groundwater flow map on the East Hampton Town website appears to confirm that the Sagaponack property is likely to be outside the direction of the flow coming from property adjacent to the airport, the suspected source of the contamination. The map shows the general direction of groundwater flowing in the vicinity of Georgica and Wainscott ponds.

But experts have noted that groundwater flow maps represent broad generalizations, which should be backed up by test well monitoring.

Exasperated, Ms. Sherman said she has been reaching out to East Hampton Town Hall, Sagaponack Village Hall and Suffolk County officials for months, looking for help.

“I’m not sure about what to do,” Ms. Sherman said. “There’s a part of me that wants to make a big deal of this. I’ve never made a big deal about anything in my life. It’s only because the health of my family … could be at stake.”

East Hampton Town Supervisor Peter Van Scoy could not be reached for comment.

According to the Suffolk County Health Department, studies with rats and mice exposed to the chemical indicate that over a certain exposure level there could be a risk to a fetus or a breastfed infant: liver, immune system and thyroid damage, and an increased risk of cancer.

Ms. Sherman keeps a folder filled with papers tracking her conversations, estimates on the costs of filters for her well, and clips of articles about the chemicals found on the South Fork, as well as other information she found about the potential health effects of the chemicals.

Buying filters is a less expensive option, costing a couple of hundred dollars, depending on the brand and its effectiveness. But Ms. Sherman said the best option for the long term appears to be connecting residents to public water—which comes at a higher price tag.

Tim Motz, director of communications, government affairs and efficiency management for the Suffolk County Water Authority, said the cost of hooking up to well water depends on where the home is and what the existing infrastructure is on the block.

Ms. Sherman has a water main in front of her house, which Mr. Motz said helps keep the cost down. Still, to hook up to public water in her area, the surcharge is $5,174, plus a $1,850 standard tapping fee.

The water authority allows the service to be financed, and it can be expedited if documentation of contamination is provided.

A Suffolk County Health Department official noted this week that the department always recommends that homeowners who use private wells connect to a public water supply “whenever feasible.”

“I can’t believe I’m alone in this,” Ms. Sherman added, as she studied the results of her chemical testing circled on a piece of paper.

Rhodi Cary Winchell, the Sagaponack Village clerk and treasurer, said she is not aware of any other cases of well contamination in the village. A Suffolk County Health Department official confirmed that the department had received only one report from a Sagaponack resident.

In the meantime, Ms. Sherman is taking her own precautionary steps.

“I have a cooler in the kitchen, and we have bottled water in the garage,” she said. “I don’t use water from the tap … If I’m making pasta or rice or something, I use bottled water.”

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