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Sep 12, 2017 11:56 AMPublication: The Southampton Press

Department Of Defense Says It Won't Reimburse County For Chemical Cleanup In Westhampton

U.S. Senator Charles Schumer urges the Department of Defense to reimburse Suffolk County the money it laid out to help with the PFOS cleanup. COURTESY MARISA KAUFMAN
Sep 13, 2017 12:08 PM

The federal government has no plans to reimburse Suffolk County after it spent $4.9 million connecting several dozen homeowners living near Francis S. Gabreski Airport to public water over the past year following the detection of chemicals in their private wells that state environmental investigators believe originated from the Air National Guard base operating at the Westhampton airfield.

Adam Stump, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Defense, on Monday confirmed that his department will not pick up the tab for any past expenditures related to the contamination.

Officials have said those expenditures include the cost of the public water connections that were financed by the Suffolk County Water Authority, money spent by the Suffolk County Health Department on bottled water distributed to the more than 100 affected homeowners, and the ensuing health screenings provided to concerned homeowners in the path of the pollution.

At the same time, Mr. Stump said the Department of Defense could be open to paying for the anticipated cleanup of the contamination that State Department of Environmental Conservation officials—who are scheduled to investigate the source of the pollution this fall—think will ultimately be traced back to firefighting foam used by ANG members during training exercises.

The detected chemicals—perfluorooctane sulfonate, or PFOS, and perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA—were found last year in more than 100 private wells located to the south of the airport, which is owned by Suffolk County though the ANG’s 106th Rescue Wing is also stationed there.

Neither PFOS nor PFOA is a known carcinogen, but officials have said there have been few studies focusing on how the chemicals affect humans, and it’s unclear what prolonged exposure can do to the body.

In a prepared statement, Mr. Stump said that following a “careful review” of its financial liability at the Westhampton base, as well as at the Stewart Air National Guard Base in Orange County, which is being blamed for similar contamination, the Department of Defense cannot authorize the “reimbursement for past expenditures.”

His statement came three days after U.S. Senator Charles Schumer held a press conference in Hauppauge demanding that the Department of Defense reimburse Suffolk County for the nearly $5.4 million it has paid out to protect homeowners from the pair of unregulated chemicals. The Suffolk County Water Authority has laid out nearly $4.9 million to hook up homeowners to public water while the county’s Health Department has spent $491,380 on bottled water and testing, according to Mr. Schumer’s office.

“My message today to the Department of Defense is simple: Pay up,” the senator said on Friday.

He added that both Suffolk and Orange counties should be receiving funding from the federal government, stressing that the ANG bases are responsible for polluting the groundwater and nearby drinking wells.

“I’ve said it before and I will say it again: Every day that Suffolk County waits for this reimbursement is a day too many,” Mr. Schumer said in a prepared statement. “The Air National Guard is responsible for the cleanup of the toxic mess at Gabreski Airport, and they should be the ones who pay to clean it up now—not later.

“It’s troubling and unacceptable to know that the feds are trying to wiggle away from their duty to reimburse millions for the cost of Suffolk County’s remediation efforts and that’s why I’m making a new push for DOD to deliver payment to the county,” he continued.

As expected, the federal government’s stance was not appreciated by Suffolk County officials either.

“Suffolk County does not accept the position that [the] DOD and federal ANG can ignore their financial obligations,” said Jason Elan, a spokesman for County Executive Steve Bellone. “Senator Schumer and other members of Congress agree, and we stand with them to recoup this money owed to our taxpayers.”

Through a representative, U.S. Representative Lee Zeldin on Tuesday stated that he sent a letter in September to Ash Carter, the secretary of defense, and Lieutenant General Stanley E. Clarke III, the director of the ANG, calling for the Department of Defense to cover all costs associated with connecting the private wells to municipal water due to the contamination.

“The SCWA must be reimbursed for any outlays of funds they have expended in the hook-ups of homeowners to public water,” Mr Zeldin said in a prepared statement, later adding: “I will continue to pursue reimbursements for all past expenses.”

The congressman added that he will continue to work with all agencies, including the Department of Defense, to ensure that the contamination at the airport is eventually cleaned up.

Last month, representatives of the State Department of Environmental Conservation said they intend to launch an investigation this fall at Gabreski Airport to pinpoint the source of the pollution. The announcement came a year after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency first identified the two chemicals in nearby private wells. DEC officials have previously stated that they think the chemicals, which are classified as perfluorinated compounds, or PFCs, will ultimately be traced back to the ANG base. In addition to being found in firefighting foam, the chemicals have traditionally been linked with industrial products, such as water-resistant coatings, oils, stains and certain greases.

DEC officials expect to wrap up their investigation before the end of the year.

About 10 miles to the east, the Hampton Bays Fire District is now dealing with a similar situation after the same two chemicals were detected in two of the district’s 11 public water wells over the past year. The two affected wells, which have been shut off by the district, sit directly south of the Hampton Bays firehouse, where the same firefighting foam has been used for training exercises. Last week, Hampton Bays Water District Superintendent Robert King asked the Southampton Town Board for permission to purchase special filters that could be outfitted on the two wells, allowing them to produce safe drinking water again.

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