At least not yet, say environmental experts such as David Stern, a Physical Sciences Instructor at Nassau Community College and former executive director of the NYS Legislative Commission on Water Resource Needs of New York State and Long Island.
“The DEC has a backwards way of approaching the problem instead of trying to stop the problem,” he says. “There is an effort, but there seems to be almost an acceptance that we’ll just treat it at the drinking water well, which means all of us have to drink some level of the contaminants.”
As water districts throughout Long Island discover MTBE in their wells, they have fired back.
In 2002, the Plainview Water District took landmark legal action against Exxon Mobil Corporation to ensure that a gas spill located at a former Mobil Station would be cleaned up. Dozens of other districts from across the island and more than 100 water companies from across the United States joined the litigation against scores of gas companies. The Suffolk County Water Authority in Oakdale walked away with the largest amount, $73.4 million of the settlement, with the funds going toward remediation efforts across the island.
But not all municipalities on Long Island were involved. Once such exception was the Town of Hempstead Department of Water.
“Thankfully, we have not had any wells affected by MTBE,” says the department’s commissioner, John Reinhardt. “We’d like to keep it that way.”
Just to be sure, the Press accompanied Reinhardt on a tour of the facilities. Plant operators test the water at least once a week for a multitude of chemicals including gasoline components like MTBE, he explains, while showcasing the town’s large blue pump, which provides water to the district’s 150,000 residents. Samples are sent to a lab and collected from random places, like the East Meadow Fire Department, for example. Two different operators take the samples, to ensure the integrity of each specimen is preserved. Wells are controlled from a central computer monitoring system.
“You don’t want to keep all your wells in one particular area in case you do have a contamination issue in the groundwater,” Reinhardt explains.
Reinhardt, whose district has the option of joining the MTBE litigation if contamination is found, keeps a folder on his desk labeled “MTBE” with the paperwork—just in case.
STOPPING THE SPREAD
At Liberty gas station on Hempstead Turnpike in Elmont, DEC inspectors found gasoline floating in monitoring wells. Based on an investigation, the agency determined that a MTBE plume extended almost 1,750 feet southwest from the station. The level of MTBE was found to be 24,000 times the drinking water standard at the site, according to DEC documents. The station owner, 45-year-old Nejdet Yetim of Patchogue, refused to perform a complete investigation to determine the groundwater contamination migrating off-site and to replace the leaking tank, they read. By law, the DEC can take over a cleanup if the owner is unwilling or unable to take initiative and when the public danger is mitigated can seek reimbursement from the offender.
That was the case with Liberty.
The agency used one of its contractors and began remediation. All drinking water wells were mapped out and the spill is being monitored. Investigation and cleanup costs associated with this spill are projected to be approximately $750,000.
Yetim was arrested and charged Oct. 29, 2009 with multiple felony environmental crimes after investigators determined more than 200 gallons of gasoline may have leaked into the soil and groundwater around the tank through a 5-by-8-inch hole.
“It is imperative to hold these people accountable for the damage they are doing to our environment,” said Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice in an e-mailed statement. “My office will continue to aggressively prosecute these cases until the message gets through to gas station owners that the safety of the surrounding community is more important than their bottom line.”
But prosecutions are hard to make, especially when offenders don’t always have a face.
“If there’s contamination under a piece of property and people aren’t sure where it came from, who the initial contaminator of the land may have been—it might have been there for decades—then there’s the question of who should pay,” explains Steven Barshov, partner at Sive, Paget & Riesel Environmental Law Firm in Manhattan.
That’s a question many are wondering about: Who will pay the biggest price for these spills? In the meantime, experts assure that Long Island’s drinking water is safe—for now.
Stern explains that our water is held to much stricter standards than bottled water. Bottled water is regulated by the Federal Food and Drug Administration, not the EPA, so it only has to be tested for contaminants annually. Stern’s biggest concern, however, is that there hasn’t been a thorough regional look at our drinking water conditions in decades, and that environmental analyses for new developments, such as the proposed Lighthouse Project in Uniondale, were drawn up using 15- to 20-year-old reports.
Having a clear picture of what is underground is the only way to keep these spills from hitting the drinking water. And it’s also the only surefire way of at least starting the cleaning-up process for what is lurking below our suburban island. After all, when it comes to toxic plumes, there’s no question among experts as to if these contaminants are going to reach our drinking glasses—it’s merely a matter of when.
That reality was perhaps best summed up in the testimony of former Suffolk Legis. Wayne Prospect, representing the LI Groundwater Research Institute, before the Environment, Land Acquisition and Planning Committee in 2002.
“We’re not drinking MTBE when we have our cup of coffee in the morning,” he said. “When we talk about MTBE we are talking about the future, because it’s only a matter of time—five years, 10 years, 15 years, 20 years, 25 years—where the MTBE that is in the groundwater will make contact with the drinking water.”