Town Eyes Fixes for Tainted Wells

Public water is likely, but point-of-entry treatment systems may come first

With 118 residential wells south of the East Hampton Airport in Wainscott now found to be contaminated by perfluorinated compounds, the East Hampton Town Board is considering how best to safeguard drinking water. 

While the board seems inclined to pursue an inter-municipal water infrastructure grant, with the Suffolk County Water Authority as the lead agency in the partnership, to connect residential properties in the area of concern to public water, the timeline for that process will be long. In the meantime, Councilman Jeffrey Bragman, the board’s liaison to the Wainscott Citizens Advisory Committee, said at a work session on Tuesday that the town should make point-of-entry treatment systems available to homeowners with contaminated wells as soon as possible. 

Suffolk County Health Department officials began a survey of water from private wells in the area of the East Hampton Airport in August. In October, the Health Department announced discovery of levels of two perfluorinated compounds, or PFCs, in excess of the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s acceptable levels for lifetime exposure. Since then, the test area has expanded to an area containing nearly 400 wells, of which around 244 have been tested, Mr. Bragman said. 

Perfluorooctane sulfonate, or PFOS, and perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, have been detected at varying levels in the wells. Though PFCs are currently unregulated, the E.P.A. has identified both PFOS and PFOA as contaminants of emerging concern. The agency issued the lifetime health advisory level of 0.07 parts per billion to protect the most sensitive populations, including fetuses during pregnancy and breastfed babies, against potential adverse health effects.

According to the E.P.A., studies on animals indicate that exposure to the two compounds over certain levels may also negatively affect the thyroid, liver, and immune systems, and cause cancer, among other effects. 

Upon discovery of the PFCs, the town offered free bottled drinking water to all those in the test area who are not connected to public water supplies. On Tuesday, they pondered long-term solutions. 

Nicole Ficeto, the town’s grants coordinator, briefed the board on the State Environmental Facilities Corporation’s Intermunicipal Water Infrastructure Grants Program, detailing how the town and the water authority could partner to apply for a grant for drinking-water infrastructure improvement, in this case to extend water mains to residential properties serviced at present  by private wells. 

The town would have to form a water district, she told the board. The project would require a review under the State Environmental Quality Review Act and a resolution authorizing the application. An executed engineering agreement for design services, proof of any required easements, and a debt approval letter from the state comptroller would encourage an application’s approval, she said, as would a detailed project schedule, itemized plans, specifications, and other relevant documents. 

“We will do our homework” and work with the county, Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc said, and execute an inter-municipal agreement with the water authority. “I think it’s really important to move forward and try to have the ability to receive these grants.” However, he said, the board does not have the luxury of time, given the urgency of protecting public health. 

“We are certainly going to look for every potential source of grant money that we can to lower the costs,” the supervisor said after the meeting. “It makes sense to start the process of developing the plans, which we’ve already done with the Suffolk County Water Authority in terms of locating, having the physical maps drawn up. We need to create a water supply district. Engineering needs to take place.” Regardless of the grant timeline, “we’re still going to be moving,” he said. “I certainly don’t want to sit around and wait to get the grant. That’s valuable time we’re going to use to work to alleviate this concern.”

Mr. Bragman underscored that concern, explaining that the chemicals in question are endocrine disruptors. Endocrine disruptors, found in a range of man-made and natural substances, interfere with the body’s endocrine system and produce adverse developmental, reproductive, neurological, and immune effects. “They’ve determined that very minute quantities can cause harm,” he said. At one time, New Jersey had set an acceptable limit of exposure at 40 parts per trillion, he said, but it has since lowered that threshold to 13 parts per trillion. 

“I strongly believe we can’t just wait for public water,” he said. “There is effective filtration available.” Point-of-entry treatment systems cost about $3,000, he said, but a public bid would likely lower that cost. The systems require an additional annual cost of $1,000 to replace filters. 

“If we took the initiative and installed water filtration, we’re looking at about $350,000,” Mr. Bragman said, comparing the potential expenditure to the approximately $330,000 allocated to combat the southern pine beetle infestation in Northwest Woods in East Hampton. “This problem is more serious than the southern pine beetle,” he said. “This affects human health. I think it requires us to think about the role of government. . . . We have a responsibility to act decisively and protect human health. . . . We all care, everybody cares about this. But we can’t care slowly. I would favor getting bids to get these systems, and favor making them available to all contaminated wells we have.” 

“Point-of-entry treatment systems are very effective,” Mr. Van Scoyoc said, and are installed quickly relative to water mains. “We find, right to this very moment, everything we do on the land does have a direct impact on our groundwater. With that in mind, I do support the councilman’s suggestion that we take immediate action, making available point-of-entry well treatment.” A state of emergency would likely be declared, he said, in order to allocate public money to private property, allowing homeowners to install the point-of-entry treatment systems. “I don’t think we can wait for slower moving agencies and bureaucracies to address this problem,” he said.