A Cold War-era missile defense base in Westhampton may become a New York State Superfund Site, after a survey of wells conducted by the Suffolk County Department of Health Services turned up contaminants in the area.
The 186-acre property, off of Old Country Road, is currently used by the Suffolk County Police Department to store impounded vehicles and also houses the SCPD’s firing range and a vehicle training course for first responders.
The missile base was operated by the U.S Air Force as one of ten Boeing and Michigan Aeronautical Research Center (BOMARC) facilities protecting the east coast from a potential Soviet air attack from 1959 until it was decommissioned in 1964.
Fifty-six nuclear-tipped missiles were stored here, housed in a grid of bunker-like buildings whose roofs opened up for deploying missiles. After decommissioning, the property was turned over to Suffolk County.
Suffolk County Health Commissioner Dr. James Tomarken announced Dec. 19 that the County has been informed by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) that the site is being considered as a potential inactive hazardous waste disposal site, known more commonly as a New York State “Superfund” site.
If the DEC determines the hazardous waste disposed on the property poses a significant threat to public health or the environment, it will be listed on the New York State Registry as a Superfund site.
The Health Department recently detected polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, in samples from both private wells and on-site groundwater monitoring wells and polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, in soil samples collected at the property.
PFAS are man-made chemicals that have been used worldwide since the 1950s in products such as firefighting foam, non-stick cookware, water-repellent clothing, stain-resistant fabrics and carpets, cosmetics, and products that resist grease, water, and oil.
PFAS manufacturing and processing facilities, airports, and military installations that use firefighting foams are some of the main sources of PFAS and the related compound perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA).
These chemicals have been voluntarily phased out by industry in the United States, though they are still produced internationally and can be imported into the U.S. in consumer goods. PFAS are also persistent in the environment.
PCBs are chemicals that were used in industrial products such as electrical insulators, capacitors, electric appliances, hydraulic and microscope oils from the 1920s until they were banned in 1979 over human and environmental health concerns.
PCBs enter the air, water, and soil during manufacturing and use. Wastes from the manufacturing process that contained PCBs were often placed in dump sites or landfills. Because PCBs bind strongly to soil, their detection in groundwater is very rare.
The Suffolk County Department of Health Services began its survey and investigation of private wells in Westhampton in 2017, after PFOS was found in a Suffolk County Water Authority Old Country Road public supply well immediately south of the former BOMARC facility, said Dr. Tomarken.
The public water supply in this area currently meets all existing drinking water standards, as well as proposed maximum contaminant levels for PFAS and 1,4-dioxane.
The health department then tested 54 private well water sites nearby. Two of the private wells were found to contain PFOS/PFOA at levels exceeding the United States Environmental Protection Agency health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion and 11 more wells were found to contain PFOS or PFOA at levels exceeding the proposed state maximum contaminant level of 10 parts per trillion.
The DEC has installed treatment systems and continues to monitor the two homes with PFOS/PFOA detections above the EPA advisory level, and is still making bottled water available to private well owners in the survey area. The health department is urging any property owner in this area currently using a private well for drinking water to contact them at 631.852.5810 to have their water tested.
Residents who are unsure if they are served by public water may call the Suffolk County Water Authority at 631.698.9500.
Given the large survey area, the health department cautions that there are several sites in the area that may be potential sources of PFAS groundwater contamination.
The health department also collected numerous soil and groundwater samples at the BOMARC site. County health officials have shared preliminary data with the DEC and are currently compiling and reviewing it, but they have not yet pinpointed potential sources of PFAS and PCBs on this site.
The health department has installed 28 test wells and received completed results for the 161 samples collected.
The health department reported there were detections of PFAS in 26 of the 28 profile wells installed as part of this investigation. Four wells had detections above the health advisory level, with concentrations as high as 219 parts per trillion. Nine wells had detections above New York State’s proposed maximum contaminant level but below the EPA health advisory level. Two wells had no detections of PFAS. The remaining 13 wells had detections of PFAS below the state’s proposed drinking water maximum contaminant level.
During the county’s initial assessment of the soil at the site, 16 soil samples were analyzed for PCBs. Four surface soil samples exceeded DEC commercial use soil cleanup objectives of one part per million (1 ppm) for PCBs, with levels ranging from 5.6 to 10.5 ppm. No samples exceeded the industrial soil cleanup objective of 25 ppm. Of the four soil samples, three were in the vicinity of the firing range and one was a parking lot used for vehicle storage. Five sediment samples from below-grade structures also exceeded NYSDEC cleanup objectives for PCBs.