A “Legacy of Contamination” Being Addressed in Southampton

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Walter Hang of the Ithaca-based pollution data-collection firm Toxics Targeting.

With toxic chemicals showing up in groundwater from Westhampton to Sagaponack, the time has come for the Town of Southampton to come to terms with “a legacy of contamination that the town has inherited” from a myriad toxic deposits and spills over the decades, said one expert this week.

By scouring databases and identifying every property in town where chemicals have been released and groundwater pollution is threatened, the Town of Southampton could “control the narrative,” Walter Hang of the Ithaca-based pollution data-collection firm Toxics Targeting told the Southampton Town Board at its work session on July 19.

“You’re either going to get press for people not being able to drink their water or you can get press for taking the kind of action I know you’re capable of,” he said.

There’s no time to waste, Mr. Hang said. Governor Cuomo decides what groundwater problems get attention in New York and he’s running for reelection right now.

Introducing Mr. Hang, Supervisor Jay Schneiderman noted “anyone who reads the news” knows that groundwater pollution is a widespread problem in the town, from the neighborhood of Gabreski Airport in Westhampton to the Hampton Bays Water District’s wellfield number one to the long-closed Damascus Road town landfill in East Quogue.

“Then Sagaponack is the latest,” he said, noting that groundwater pollution detected last year in Wainscott near East Hampton Airport “has now expanded to the Southampton side of the town line” with a private homeowner’s discovery of the same pollutant in her private well south of Montauk Highway, near Daniels Lane just west of Town Line Road.

“As we look at these private well detections, we see we have a town-wide issues from Westhampton to Sagaponack,” Mr. Schneiderman said. “We don’t really know where this is coming from.” He noted East Hampton officials initially suspected that firefighting foam stored and used for training on the airport property was the source. But groundwater at the Daniels Lane well is not downstream from the airport fire station.

“Maybe it’s from putting car fires out or industrial fires. Maybe it’s hair care product. Maybe its microwave popcorn containers. Maybe its pizza boxes,” the supervisor said. “This is something that’s really been taking a lot of my time and it has been in the news quite a bit,” and it has been “scaring our residents” who are asking, “Is it safe to drink their private well water,” he said.

Mr. Schneiderman said he first learned about Mr. Hang as “a leader on issues of toxic contamination and how it affected human health” when, after graduating from Ithaca College as a chemist, he went to work in Cortland, New York for the New York Public Interest Research Group, a non-profit, non-partisan public advocacy organization. “Walter Hang was already established as a leader on issues of toxic contamination and how it affected human health,” Mr. Schneiderman said.

Mr. Hang then launched into a long and often technical presentation to the board, after which the supervisor asked him to contact East Hampton Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc and also present that board with a formal proposal and cost. At one point, Mr. Hang said he had done an MTBE study for both South Forks towns years ago and charged each $25,000.

In his presentation, Mr. Hang said that PFOS (perfluorooctane sulfanate), the chemical associated with firefighting foam, “is just an indicator of a broad spectrum of contaminants that are still out there.”

He said his company, Toxics Targeting, uses the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to collect “all the landfill data and leaking tank data and all hazardous waste data” and plot it on a map that can be integrated with the town’s GIS (geographic information system). Out of more than 850,000 sites that the company tracks, about half are spill locations, he said. The company also stores “useful data for remediation” including past testing and sourcing, he added.

His firm played roles in remediating the Rowe Industries, the Bulova Watch Case and the former gas plant pollution sites in Sag Harbor, he said, and in dealing with gasoline-additive MTBE pollution detected in the early 2000s in the towns of Southampton and East Hampton.

“Someone wants a report on a location” near the Gowanus Canal in Queens, he explained, and they can click on one of his mapped sites “and get the actual profile that Toxics Targeting gets through FOIA from the state; then you can see all of the volatile compounds they identify, the polychlorinated biphenyls, and you can see in many cases the levels are just staggering.”

“My company helps entities figure out who is responsible,” he said, adding that in the case of “orphan sites there are dedicated funds” to pay for cleanups.

“But the whole pursuit of responsible-party cleanups has fallen by the wayside,” he explained, “and so has the focus on cleaning up orphan sites because, just as you are, everyone is into sustainability, everyone is in to climate change. And people forget about” the disruptive and costly work of toxic cleanup. “But this is the only way to really deal with these toxic pollution problems.”

Supervisor Schneiderman noted that, in recent years, “everybody just says connect to public water” when groundwater pollution is discovered “and by the time it reaches the bays it’s so diluted.” That approach is “not curing” the pollution problem, he added.

Knowledge of pollution remediation has only been developed over the last 40 or 50 years, Mr. Hang responded. “They made a fatal error of judgment,” he said, referring to state and federal agencies, when they figured groundwater pollution would “attenuate, slow down, stop, and not go very far. As we learned from MTBE, that’s not true. MTBE dissolves in the groundwater and it will go and go and go.”

“This is what you have to do for the source material,” Mr. Hang said. “The source is the key.” The source must be physically removed using “vapor barriers or sub-slab depressurization.”

Failing to remove it, he added, is “how come you have problems — because 20 years ago they said it’s OK, it will attenuate, and 10 years later, 20 years later, it shows up.”

“You need help, I believe,” he said. “You could use my data to assess everything and have a ranking of high, medium and low” for the pollution risks of every site. “In addition to knowing where you have PFOS problems, I believe you and all the other municipalities and water purveyors have common cause to make sure this problem gets dealt with from A to Z.” Meanwhile, “No one is paying attention” on the state and federal levels. “There aren’t enough people,” he said.

“You have a couple of months, I believe, where you can really make hay while the sun shines,” he said. “You can control the narrative because you can control the scope of work.”

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Peter Boody is news editor of The Sag Harbor Express. Previously he was the editor of the Southampton Press for many years and also edited several other papers, including the Shelter Island Reporter and the East Hampton Press, of which he was founding editor. He was a regular correspondent for the New York Times Long Island section and wrote the novel “Thomas Jefferson, Rachel & Me.”