Another day, another development project on Long Island

Why we need cleanups, not coverups, of industrial sites on Long Island: The case of EPCAL

The EPCAL site, upper left. An enormous contaminated plume of groundwater is moving southeast toward the Pine Barrens Preserve and Peconic River. Credit: Google Earth 

The EPCAL site, upper left. An enormous contaminated plume of groundwater is moving southeast toward the Pine Barrens Preserve and Peconic River. Credit: Google Earth 

As I scrolled down my Facebook feed on Wednesday night, I noticed something concerning, a news story posted by a guy in a local wildlife photography group I'm a part of: "LI developers win bid for 633 acres in Calverton." I was concerned because, a) being a trained scientist/science writer, the word "develop" and every derivation thereof usually indicates the destruction of something natural and the construction of something unnatural; and, b) I live on Long Island and so my NIMBY-senses started tingling. More projects? Not in my backyard. 

Calverton is a hamlet partly in the Town of Riverhead and partly in the Town of Brookhaven, which, in the 1800s was a farming community where cranberries were grown in swampy wetlands along the ecologically important Peconic River. In the 1950s, the U.S. Navy bought more than 6,000 acres of land in Calverton to create a Grumman jet finishing plant and jet test area, complete with two runways, an industrial site now referred to as "EPCAL." In the 70s, more than 1,000 acres was used to create the Calverton National Cemetery. In the 90s, Northrop Grumman (formerly Grumman) left the base and so the Navy began selling off the land. About 2,640 acres were given to the town of Riverhead, while nearly 3,000 acres of undeveloped land were given to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation for remediation and wildlife management and 140 acres were given to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to expand the national cemetery. 

Today, the unsold land--358 acres--are still owned by the U.S. Navy because they're still too contaminated to pass on to another owner, such as the state, a town or a private developer. The groundwater, soil and sediments under these 350+ acres are contaminated with heavy metals such as lead (think Flint: harmful to the neurological and biological health of humans and animals; can cause death), PCBs (industrial chemicals that can cause cancer, disease and death in humans and animals), SVOCs and VOCs (chemicals in fossil fuels that can also cause cancer, disease and death in humans and other animals), pesticides (chemicals used to kill insects that, you guessed it, can cause cancer, disease and death in humans and animals, á la DDT...which devastated wild bird populations in the 1960s and 70s). 

The article doesn't mention EPCAL's environmental legacy as a major polluter. Instead it focuses on jobs for Long Islanders. The article doesn't mention that, besides the 358 acres currently still undergoing cleanup, a gigantic groundwater plume contaminated with the same toxic chemicals found on the EPCAL site is expanding day by day, moving southeast toward the Peconic River and Long Island State Pine Barrens Preserve, two extremely environmentally sensitive areas. What's more, the state- and town-owned portion of the site is still undergoing some decontamination, just not at the same level as the federally owned part (apparently, it's not as toxic). So basically, the site is less-than-pristine and still contains potentially cancer-, disease- and death-causing heavy metals and chemicals.

Concerned, I tweeted the article and posted it on my own Facebook page. A friend from my running club commented, positing that it's probably best the already-developed part of the plant be transformed into something else industrial, rather than clearing out new land on the site, or elsewhere on the Island for that matter. To a point I agree: Building new buildings where there are already buildings rather than uprooting trees and draining wetlands is smart.

But EPCAL is not fully cleaned up and ready for reuse. "Reuse" in this case also involves demolition and new construction--digging up the ground and carrying away rubble--which will increase traffic generally through the site, kicking up contaminated dust and dirt. Extreme care will need to be taken to ensure runoff, construction debris, noise and workers' litter do not harm the sensitive parts of the site. Because construction on a toxic site is less of an exacting and sterile science than, say, measuring samples of toxic chemicals with a precise micropipette in a lab, I I have some doubts about whether that's possible.

What should be done is a complete federal cleanup not only of the EPCAL site, but of the plume which is seeping from under the site into Long Island's sole-source aquifer system; the underground complex of rock and water the whole island relies on for its drinking water. The government has done some cleanup of the site, but the plume, as I've elaborated, exceeds the boundaries of the site. 

It's ridiculous to think we're building on a toxic waste dump--disrupting toxic materials and possibly inputting more toxic materials instead of cleaning them up. During construction, oil and fluids can leak from vehicles and machines, paints and sealants can spill, exhaust will undoubtedly flow from both moving and idling trucks (why people leave trucks idling is a mystery to me). I feel bad for the people who are going to do construction and work there, and those who live near EPCAL. The EPA has said of the site it's still decontaminating: "Any future soil excavation would be performed in a manner that would minimize exposure to workers. Trespassers are kept off the site by a combination of fencing and security, and are not expected to come in contact with contaminated soil." 

The disruption of the contaminated soil, sediments and water at EPCAL is undoubtedly unhealthy.

This is why we need cleanups, not coverups, of EPCAL and other contaminated industrial sites on Long Island. EPCAL could be repurposed, or it could be demolished and returned into wildlife habitat, but should only be touched when completely remediated and safe for humans and animals.

Besides full cleanups, we need to reassess our values as a society. Are jobs (many of which will be temporary) more valuable than our health, wellbeing and environment? Is it possible to hold fulfilling, sustainable careers and live rewarding lives without poisoning ourselves and the environment?

I think so, I know so. We just need to shift our values and lifestyles. Think: drive less, use less plastic, build fewer malls, eat less meat, don't litter, install solar panels, recycle more, repurpose old things before buying new things, create a compost pile and most importantly, be informed about your environment. Toxic industrial sites are everywhere on Long Island, undoubtedly in your town. You can find them, and learn more about them, via the EPA's Toxic Release Inventory webpage