As communities across the country decide how they will remove perfluorinated compounds from drinking water and contaminated soils, a cleanup surrounding the Hampton Bays Fire Department headquarters on Montauk Highway highlights the complex layers of bureaucracy underlying the removal of so-called “forever chemicals.”

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) is currently seeking public comment on an “Interim Remedial Measure” plan to excavate contaminated soil adjacent to a storage building on the property, which is owned by the Hampton Bays Fire District, and where DEC representatives say trainings and demonstrations of firefighting foam containing the compounds took place dating back to the 1990s.

This interim measure is being undertaken now because contamination in the soil “has the potential to spread to deeper depths,” according to a report prepared by consultants PW Grosser Consulting, which is in the midst of working with the DEC and the fire district on a Proposed Remedial Action Plan and Record of Decision for a more thorough cleanup under the New York State Superfund Program. 

The consultant also recommends the remediation of at least six sanitary and drainage system leaching pools, as well as additional groundwater monitoring.

These compounds, known collectively as PFAS, have only recently begun to be regulated. New York set a drinking water standard of 10 parts per trillion in drinking water in 2020, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency unveiled a lower standard of 4 parts per trillion earlier this year, to be phased in by 2029.

In recent years, these chemicals have become strongly linked to a wide variety of health risks, including some cancers, weakening of immune systems, hormone disruption, decreased fertility and developmental delays.

Contamination believed to be from the Hampton Bays Fire District site was found in ‘Plant 3’ of the Hampton Bays Water District’s well field just south of the fire department in 2016, after which the water district, which is helmed by the Southampton Town Board, received grant funding to install a granulated activated carbon (GAC) filtration system on the well, which is used seasonally to provide drinking water to the people of Hampton Bays. The town is also exploring the possibility of adding a new well field to the district to replace the contaminated well.

The Hampton Bays Fire District is undertaking the cleanup under a consent order with the DEC, and DEC Project Manager Jared Donaldson said at a May 28 public information session at the Hampton Bays Library that “a series of legal and technical things had to happen” before the work was undertaken.” 

“A final remedy hasn’t been selected,” he added. “It all takes a lot of time, and in the middle of this, Covid hit.”

He added later that there has historically been a backlog of samples at the few laboratories that are capable of testing for PFAS.

“There are a lot of remediation sites, and a lot of samples,” he said.

Mr. Donaldson, along with Seven Berninger of the New York State Department of Health’s Bureau of Environmental Exposure Investigations, said there is currently little risk to public health due to this contamination, since the public drinking water supply is now being filtered, and people are unlikely to be exposed to soil contamination unless they are actively digging in the contaminated soil.

“Thank god for carbon. It filters out a lot of chemicals,” said Mr. Berninger of the GAC filtration.

But residents of Hampton Bays said they are concerned about an array of issues, ranging from Southampton Town being slow to recognize the contamination in the drinking water supply nearly a decade ago, to potential exposure to firefighters, to the idea that treated water, known to have initially been contaminated, is being used in the public drinking water supply.

A storage building behind the Hampton Bays Fire Department was historically used for training and storage of firefighting foam.
A storage building behind the Hampton Bays Fire Department was historically used for training and storage of firefighting foam.

Wells downgradient from ‘Plant 3’ aren’t contaminated, which irked some at the meeting.
“I hear you saying the water didn’t migrate because the well sucked it up and distributed it to homes,” said Citizens Campaign for the Environment Executive Director Adrienne Esposito at the public meeting. “We should be intercepting plumes before it gets to the water supply.”

“Why weren’t extraction wells immediately required?” she added. “It seems like you are using water supply wells as a remediation component.”

“There was a time that we were all drinking contaminated water,” said Ray D’Angelo, president of the Hampton Bays Civic Association, who is also a retired firefighter with the FDNY. “It seems to me there was more training going on with this stuff. Since the 1970s, we used this stuff in cans. A lot of us got sick from it.”

He added that, though Mr. Berninger said firefighters were well protected by their Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA), many fire departments historically didn’t have strict policies requiring firefighters to wear their SCBA masks.

“I’m sure some of them were exposed,” he said. “Who knows how much we ingested… You know how many guys I know got cancer from this stuff? This is a very serious problem, and I don’t think you’re taking this very seriously. How long have we been drinking this crap?”

Rick Durand, Chairman of the Hampton Bays Fire District Board of Commissioners, was in the audience at the meeting, and he said the fire district has been working to make the situation right since they first discovered the contamination.

“We want to do anything we can to get this moving along,” he said. “We all live here and grew up here and we want to make it right.”

Of the chemicals, initially developed by Dupont, Mr. Durand said “nobody approved this crap. They put it out there without testing it. PFAS is everywhere. It’s in our fire gear.”

He added that the fire district is actively seeking grant money to do a thorough remediation, and is keeping abreast of class action litigation against manufacturers of the compounds, which could be used to pay for the cleanup. 

The water district has also filed litigation against the manufacturers of firefighting foam “to help recoup costs associated with the ongoing operation of the treatment system,” according to its FAQ on the cleanup.

The DEC had initially wanted both the fire district and the water district to work together on the remediation proposal, said Mr. Durand. He added that the DEC let the fire district pursue the remediation on its own after delays with the town.

“The town board is responsible for the entire town,” he said, adding that Hampton Bays isn’t the only place in town facing PFAS contamination. “We all have problems with PFAS. They’ve got a lot going on. We just need to stick together and get the soil out of there.”

The Hampton Bays Water District's water tower is just across the LIRR tracks from the fire department.
The Hampton Bays Water District’s water tower is just across the LIRR tracks from the fire department.

No one from the Southampton Town Board, which serves as the Commissioners of the Hampton Bays Water District, was at the information session, which was held at the same time as a regularly scheduled town board meeting.

Southampton Councilman Tommy John Schiavoni said the following day that the town is still actively pursuing finding another site for a well to replace Plant 3.

Water District Superintendent James Kappers told the town board at the May 9 meeting of the water district commissioners that the filter on Plant 3 recently received clean, fresh activated carbon and is expected to reduce the PFAS contamination levels to non-detect when it is put back online for the season in early June.

Retired hydrogeologist Ron Paulsen, who had been involved with the initial construction of the Hampton Bays Water District’s well field, sat quietly in the audience throughout the DEC’s presentation. Just before the close of the meeting, he pointed out that even the latest EPA requirements only regulate six out of thousands of perfluorinated compounds. He added that he believes the public drinking water supply should be tested more frequently than the current quarterly testing, that cleaning up the contaminated soil shouldn’t have been such an arduous task, and that treating the contaminated public drinking water wan’t a solution.

“The decision to treat the wellfield — that’s not a remedy,” he said. “This shouldn’t be ten years down the road that we’re doing things.”

The DEC’s public comment period is open through June 10. Comments may be submitted to Project Manager Jared Donaldson at jared.donaldson@dec.ny.gov.


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Beth Young
Beth Young is an award-winning local journalist who has been covering the East End since the 1990s. She began her career at the Sag Harbor Express and, after receiving her Masters from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, has reported for the Southampton Press, the East Hampton Press and the Times/Review Media Group. She founded the East End Beacon website in 2013, and a print edition in 2017. Beth was born and raised on the North Fork. In her spare time, she 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

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