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Sep 10, 2019 11:53 AMPublication: The Southampton Press

Suffolk County Water Authority To Be Reimbursed $4M For PFAS Remediation

The Francis S. Gabreski Air National Guard base in Westhampton. PRESS FILE
Sep 10, 2019 3:44 PM

Federal funding will cover about $4 million that the Suffolk County Water Authority spent on remediating contaminated groundwater in Westhampton, officials recently confirmed.

The contamination came from chemicals in firefighting foam that were used for decades during training sessions at the Air National Guard base located at the Francis S. Gabreski Airport, which seeped into the ground and contaminated private wells in the surrounding area.

In 2016, the Suffolk County Department of Health Services found PFOS, a type of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, in groundwater supplies around the airport. The chemicals have been linked to serious health risks like developmental delays in babies and compromised immune systems.

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation deemed the airport a Superfund site shortly after the discovery, meaning that the property had hazardous waste that posed a significant health or environmental threat. The Superfund designation also meant that costs for remediation efforts qualified for federal funding.

The $4 million in federal reimbursement money announced last week will cover the cost of installing and operating treatment systems at two well fields near the airport, as well as the cost of periodic groundwater sampling from the wells. In addition to those steps, the water authority also extended water mains into neighborhoods utilizing private wells — but those expenses were covered by state funds, according to Tim Hopkins, the authority’s general counsel.

If the federal government did not agree to cover the costs, ratepayers would have taken on the burden, although the financial impact to individual households was unclear, Mr. Hopkins said.

U.S. Senator Charles Schumer and U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand sponsored an amendment to an appropriations bill authorizing the Air Force and the Air National Guard to reimburse the county for its remediation efforts. The appropriations bill was signed into law last year with the amendment, thus allocating $45 million in reimbursements to areas surrounding military bases where water contamination was linked to firefighting foam used during training.

“The water authority’s position is it wanted to thank Senator Schumer for the efforts he put in, in terms of getting special legislation that would authorize this reimbursement of the Suffolk County Water Authority,” Mr. Hopkins said.

“We moved heaven and earth to pass specific legislation to allow the [Department of Defense] to do the right thing here: pay the Suffolk County Water Authority for the money it spent dealing with the PFOS contamination mess that others made,” Mr. Schumer said in a prepared statement. “I’ve long said local taxpayers shouldn’t have to pay for a mess they didn’t make, and now they won’t have to cover this $4 million worth.”

Gabreski isn’t the only military base that is facing this problem. In March 2018, the Defense Department identified at least 126 military sites throughout the country with drinking water contamination either on-base or in the surrounding area.

U.S. Representative Lee Zeldin also wrote letters to the Defense Department and the Air National Guard calling for federal reimbursement to the county shortly after the contamination was found.

“When it comes to local families’ drinking water, there’s no room for error, which is why it was critical Suffolk County Water Authority install the appropriate water treatment systems,” Mr. Zeldin, a member of the congressional PFAS Task Force, said in an email. “However, Suffolk County taxpayers shouldn’t foot the bill to fix a problem they didn’t create.”

Amid this victory, the water authority is meanwhile suing several manufacturers of the man-made chemicals. The case was consolidated in multi-district litigation and is currently proceeding in the U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina.

Mr. Hopkins said that the SCWA is beginning the discovery phase of the case, meaning the plaintiffs and the defendants must now provide all documents and depositions supporting their claims or defenses.

Congress is focusing its attention on PFAS manufacturers as well. A third hearing on PFAS contamination was held on Tuesday by the House Committee on Oversight and Reform’s Subcommittee on Environment. The hearing, a follow up to the subcommittee’s July 24 hearing, centered on chemical manufacturers and corporate accountability.

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It's a start
By knitter (1941), Southampton on Sep 10, 19 3:37 PM