Defense Department Won’t Pay for Work Done to Protect Public Health from Firefighting Foam at Gabreski Airport

Gabreski Airport in 1996
Gabreski Airport in 1996

The Suffolk County Health Department and the Suffolk County Water Authority have spent more than $5 million over the past year to ensure safe drinking water for neighbors of Gabreski Airport in Westhampton, with the assurance that money would be repaid by the U.S. Department of Defense.

But now, it’s looking like the costs may instead be borne by Long Island taxpayers and ratepayers.

The emerging contaminants perfluorooctanoic acid and perfluorooctanesulfonic acid, compounds historically used in firefighting foam and also in non-stick cookware and stain repellants, were found at high levels in wells surrounding the airport in the summer of 2016, not long after the EPA dramatically cut the guidelines for acceptable levels of the chemicals in drinking water to 70 parts per trillion.

Firefighting foam is used to suppress fires involving flammable liquids like gasoline or jet fuel — it works by smothering fires that are fed by such fuels. It is commonly used to suppress vehicle fires and is an essential component of fire safety for aviation. Newer types of firefighting foam do not contain PFOA/PFOS, but it had been commonly used in the past.

Long-term exposure to PFOA/PFOS in high concentrations has led to cancer, liver damage, immune disorders, thyroid imbalance, cardiovascular issues and developmental disabilities, according to the EPA

The issues surrounding exposure to these chemicals have begun to come to light after years of study of the effects of exposure to the chemicals on neighbors of and workers at the Dupont chemical company’s plant in Parkersburg, West Virginia, where the compounds, originally developed by 3M, were widely used. PFOA and PFOS are no longer allowed to be manufactured in the United States.

Gabreski Airport was named a New York State Superfund site in September of 2016, subject to superfund laws that require that require the party responsible for the contamination pay for the cleanup.

In this case, that party has been identified by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation as the U.S. Department of Defense, which recently established policy that it requires new “cooperative agreements” with agencies it is working with on clean-up projects, and will not honor costs incurred before those agreements were signed.

“After careful review of the issues affecting financial liability at Stewart and Gabreski ANG bases, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Environment, Safety, and Occupational Health advised the Air National Guard will be allowed to renew discussions aimed at developing Cooperative Agreements to mitigate locations with PFOS/PFOA drinking water exceedances. This involves collaborative discussion on future mitigation activities; reimbursement for past expenditures are not authorized,” said DoD Spokesman Adam Stump on Sept. 14. “The Department of Defense defines past expenditures as anything that the community expended prior to having a signed cooperative agreement with the Air National Guard or other appropriate DoD entity, regardless of fiscal year. The cooperative agreement will lay out the terms of what DoD can pay for.”

The Suffolk County Water Authority has already invested more than $4.8 million for filtration systems, laboratory sampling, and the installation of water mains to hook up homes that had contaminated private wells, while the Suffolk County Department of Health Services has invested more than $491,000 for a private well survey groundwater investigation, which included the installation of four groundwater profile wells, laboratory analytical services, and providing bottled water, community outreach and administrative and legal services.  

“The Suffolk County Water Authority responded in good faith to PFOS/PFOA contamination in the vicinity of Gabreski Airport in Westhampton Beach by taking immediate and costly steps to protect public health,” said SCWA CEO Jeffrey Szabo in a Sept. 13 statement. “As such, we expect the Air National Guard to keep its verbal commitment to reimburse us for our expenditures which, if not paid by ANG, will ultimately be paid by SCWA ratepayers.”

U.S. Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer has also taken an interest in the case, holding a press conference Sept. 8 at Suffolk County’s H. Lee Dennison building in Hauppauge blasting the Department of Defense for delaying payment, labeling the delay “cynical legal tactics and intransigence.” 

“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,” said Mr. Schumer. “The Air National Guard is responsible for the clean-up 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. It is simply not fair to leave local taxpayers and ratepayers on the hook for the clean-up and related costs that they were forced to take on as a result of toxic PFOS pollution at the base. These costs cannot and should not be on the backs of locals. The Department of Defense and the Air National Guard must step up to the plate and negotiate compensation to Suffolk for costs they have already incurred because a failure to pay just cannot stand.”

The Department of Defense is also refusing to pay for the local cost of providing safe drinking water to the cities of Newburgh and New Windsor, New York due to the contamination of their drinking water supply by PFOA/PFOS from the Stewart Air National Guard Base.

In Stewart’s case, New York State has already spent about $25 million ensuring the safety of the water supply, and was already contractually obligated to spend another $26 million before the new DoD policy, according to a report this week in the Times Herald-Record.

Beth Young

Beth Young has been covering the East End since the 1990s. In her spare time, she runs around the block, tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

One thought on “Defense Department Won’t Pay for Work Done to Protect Public Health from Firefighting Foam at Gabreski Airport

  • September 15, 2017 at 11:27 am
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    “Newer types of firefighting foam do not contain PFOA/PFOS”. The implication is that the new foam must be safe, otherwise, wouldn’t the USEPA tell us it may not be safe. The Firefighting Foam Coalition, who manufacture and distribute the foam, worked with the EPA and that is why it only took the EPA 17 years to phase out the old firefighting foam that degrades to PFOS and PFOA. According to the Madrid Statement (May 2015), the new foam will have the same result over time as the old foam because it is also a poly- and perfluoroalkyl substance.

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