Water Authority Sues Chemical Companies

Following revelations that water supplies in several Suffolk County locations have been contaminated by potentially cancer-causing industrial chemicals, the Suffolk County Water Authority filed suit last week against companies that manufactured and sold products containing three contaminants. 

Two separate complaints filed in Eastern District federal court seek to recoup the costs to the authority of treating tainted water in its wells. The contaminants were also found in several private wells in Wainscott.

A complaint stemming from pollution with 1,4-dioxane targets the Dow Chemical Company, Ferro Corporation, Vulcan Materials Corporation, Procter & Gamble, and Shell Oil, in connection with their use of that chemical in industrial degreasers, laundry detergents, and other household products.

The second complaint centers on the perfluorinated chemicals — perfluorooctane sulfonate, or PFOS, and perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA — that prompted the Suffolk County and New York State Health Departments to launch a testing program of private well water around the East Hampton Airport earlier this fall. 

The chemicals are used in firefighting foams and other degreasing applications; after they were found in water near several industrial sites in Suffolk, officials began checking wells surrounding other areas, such as the airport, where products containing them might have been used.

About one-third of the private water wells used by Wainscott residents in a designated area of concern have been tested so far, Councilwoman Kathee Burke-Gonzalez reported at a town board meeting on Tuesday.

Lab results are in for 84 samples, she said, showing PFOA and PFOC present in water from 38 wells. However, the levels in all but one were below the threshold of 70 parts per trillion considered a level of concern by health authorities.  

According to the water authority, none of its wells in the Town of East Hampton have tested positive for perfluorinated chemicals. If found, they can be removed with granular activated carbon systems. 

The water authority said that 1,4-dioxane has been found in more than half of Long Island water supply wells. Removing it could cost in the hundreds of millions of dollars. The water authority is testing what it calls a landmark treatment system to remove the chemical, which would use an advanced oxidation process. 

There have been a “few isolated detections” of 1,4-dioxane in water authority wells here: at three in Montauk and one in East Hampton, a water authority spokesman said yesterday.

The cost of treating water for the contaminants in question, S.C.W.A. claims in its lawsuits, should be borne by the chemical companies.  

“The ratepayers of the Suffolk County Water Authority should not have to pay for the reckless behavior of companies who knew or should have known about these dangers,” said James F. Gaughran, the S.C.W.A. chairman, in a press release. “And we’re going to do everything we can to make sure they won’t.”

  The lawsuit over perfluorinated chemicals targets the 3M Company, Buckeye Fire Equipment Company, Chemguard Inc., Tyco Fire Products LP, and National Foam, Inc. It claims that the companies “knew or should have known that the firefighting foam they made, distributed or sold is dangerous to human health and contains unique characteristics that cause extensive and persistent environmental contamination,” according to the press release. 

The complaint notes that airports and military bases have used firefighting foams for close to 50 years to conduct firefighting and explosion drills. Those sites, the water authority says, “have been linked to the widespread contamination of groundwater not just in Suffolk, but throughout the country.”

“The production of PFOA and PFOS was phased out under pressure from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency by 2002, but the mobility and persistence of these contaminants mean that additional treatment will be needed for potentially decades to come,” the authority notes in its press release. 

  An independent, not-for-profit public benefit corporation, the water authority serves approximately 1.2 million residents of the county who are hooked up to public water mains. It recently announced a plan to add new wells and pumping stations along Stephen Hand’s Path in Wainscott. 

The State Department of Environmental Conservation, which is to investigate the source of the water contamination in the private wells in Wainscott, will present its plan to the public early next year, Ms. Burke-Gonzalez said at Tuesday’s town board meeting.

The inquiry is expected to take six to eight months. It will include monitoring wells, soil tests, and information collection, all centered on activities and potential pollution at the East Hampton Airport. 

There was a large turnout at a Wainscott Citizens Advisory Committee on Saturday at which the matter was discussed, the councilwoman said. 

A number of residents, some who have expressed concerns that any level of perfluorinated chemicals in the water supply is unacceptable, have raised questions about having Suffolk County Water Authority public water mains extended throughout Wainscott and suggested the town expedite that process. 

In a presentation this week, reported on separately in today’s Star, a representative of the Deepwater Wind company, which wants to land an undersea energy cable at Beach Lane in Wainscott, said that, among other offerings, it would provide a $1 million grant to the town for water quality infrastructure improvements in Wainscott.