by Beth Young
It’s been four years since New York Governor Andrew Cuomo sternly rebuked the federal Department of Homeland Security and General Services Administration over their handling of the environmental cleanup of Plum Island, and environmentalists believe the federal government is continuing to stonewall Albany in its release of information about that clean-up to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.
Earlier this year, Connecticut Fund for the Environment/Save the Sound, one of the organizing members of the Preserve Plum Island Coalition, hired environmental consulting firm Dermody Consulting to examine the federal responses to the DEC’s requests for information about the cleanup.
Peter Dermody’s report detailed a series of outdated testing protocols, destroyed testing wells, lack of information about the lab buildings’ use by the U.S. Army Chemical Corps before the island became an animal disease laboratory, and lack of publicly available information about the current status of a major petroleum spill in the mid-1990s or the status of Building 257, which former workers at the lab have told Save the Sound was sealed up “with contamination remaining in place.”
The federal government is planning to close the lab and move its operations to a new facility in Kansas in 2023, after which it intends to sell the island to the highest bidder. Environmentalists are looking to have the island preserved as a wildlife refuge, with a possible research institution at the current site of the lab.
But first, many questions remain about the safety of the lab.
“We want to be able to support the DEC in the cleanup of the island,” said Louise Harrison, New York Outreach Coordinator of Save the Sound’s Plum Island Campaign. “We’re looking to have 80 percent of the island conserved, but for any future use of the 20 percent where the lab is, it needs to be safe for people. The whole island needs to be safe for everybody. It’s a gem, but it’s been abused. We want to support the State of New York in their effort to do the right thing and get the federal government to step up.”
In the fall of 2013, around the time New York State issued a court order demanding the federal government do a better job of handling medical waste disposal on the island, Mr. Cuomo sent a letter to the administrators of both the DHS and the GSA stating that “more than three years have passed since the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation first alerted GSA to numerous environmental issues to be resolved prior to the closure of the Plum Island Animal Disease Center…in particular….the lack of a comprehensive investigation of the impact of federal operations on groundwater quality…. Before GSA and DHS do anything further, they must agree to a binding order with an enforceable schedule so that New York’s environmental concerns can be fully investigated and addressed.”
It’s now been four years since that letter was written, and those concerns have still not been addressed, according to Mr. Dermody’s report.
The report states that five of 15 island-wide groundwater monitoring wells were destroyed.
“It is not at all uncommon for wells to be inadvertently damaged by vehicles and excavations,” said Mr. Dermody on Nov. 28. “The issue with these wells is that they should be replaced or an explanation provided as to why there is no longer a need to sample and monitor the contaminant levels in these areas.”
Mr. Dermody’s report also points out that much of the environmental sampling on the island was done in 1999, and may not be in compliance with current DEC regulations.
He pointed out that there appears to have been no sampling for vapors in soils on the island, an issue that has become a major concern since state soil vapor guidelines were first introduced in 2006.
While compounds in water often remain in the water, compounds in a gaseous form can travel laterally through the soil, building up when they hit an obstacle such as a foundation, and causing health problems for people living or working in those buildings.
Mr. Dermody’s report also detailed holes in the publicly available information regarding the cleanup of a large petroleum spill that occurred in the 1990s at the lab’s Building 102.
Between the time an oil recovery system was installed in 2011 and 2013, Mr. Dermody’s report states that 10,000 gallons of petroleum had been recovered, “however, significant quantities of petroleum remained present in the subsurface.”
Mr. Dermody said his office was not given information about the total volume of the spill.
Mr. Dermody said representatives at the DEC have confirmed rumors that Building 257, long the subject of rumors and horror stories about the experiments done on the island, had been sealed up without being decontaminated.
“DEC continues to oversee the Department of Homeland Security and the General Services Administration as they undertake the necessary investigations and cleanup of contamination on Plum Island,” said DEC Region One Regional Director Carrie Meek Gallagher in a prepared statement Nov. 29. “DEC is currently reviewing a required after action report and the data presented will guide further cleanup actions on the island. The state will continue to hold federal Homeland Security staff and contractors accountable for implementing the most effective multi-media investigation and remediation work necessary.”
Representatives from the federal agencies overseeing the island and its sale could not provide comment before Monday. We will update this story with their comments when they become available.