Lawyer Takes on Town Over Wainscott Water

Calls town responsible for chemical contamination

A Southampton lawyer is taking the Town of East Hampton and several chemical manufacturers to court over the contamination of drinking water in Wainscott. 

In a lawsuit filed yesterday in State Supreme Court in Riverhead, Daniel Osborn, the attorney, alleged the town had “negligently and carelessly allowed commercial businesses to operate” on leased land at the East Hampton Airport and on Industrial Road, which runs along the airport’s south boundary. He called the town responsible for allowing the harmful chemicals manufactured by the other defendants to reach the water supply. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Kim Shipman, a part-time Wainscott resident. 

The Suffolk County Department of Health Services began a survey of water in private wells in the area of the airport in August. The survey was later expanded, and earlier this month, the East Hampton Town Board announced that 118 wells south of the airport had been found to be contaminated by the perfluorinated compounds known as perfluorooctane sulfonate, or PFOS, and perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA. The chemicals are used in firefighting foam and degreasing applications. 

Those living near the airport “obtain their drinking water predominantly from groundwater pumped by either municipal or private wells,” Mr. Osborn said in the suit. “For years, these residents have been drinking water laced with dangerous chemicals,” which, when consumed, “can cause serious health issues.” The town, he alleged, had “breached the duties it has expressly undertaken, namely to protect the health and welfare of its residents, particularly those in the expanded affected area, by failing to ensure that their drinking water is free of contaminants.”

Mr. Osborn seeks damages sufficient to fund and implement medical monitoring and blood tests to determine Ms. Shipman’s exposure to the chemicals; the connection of her house to the municipal water supply, or installation of filtration systems; compensatory damages for the loss of use of her property and the contamination’s negative impact on property values, and punitive damages. He also asked that water testing continue until it is determined that any risk of contamination to Ms. Shipman’s well has ended. 

Mr. Osborn said yesterday that he expects more Wainscott residents to join the lawsuit. “They wanted more time to absorb everything,” he said. A call to the East Hampton Town attorney’s office seeking comment had not been returned as of noon yesterday. 

The complaint lists the 3M Company, National Foam, and four other manufacturers that it says are or were manufacturers of aqueous film-forming foam. The products, known as AFFFs, were sold to entities that used them at or near the airport, Mr. Osborn alleged. 

The Suffolk County Water Authority has cited the same manufacturers in a suit filed in Eastern District federal court, claiming they knew or should have known that the foam is dangerous o human health and causes extensive and persistent environmental contamination. 

“The situation has gone from one of mild concern to essentially a crisis if you own a home in Wainscott,” Mr. Osborn said this week. “Six months after residents were notified for the presence of these contaminants, we have no information about the source of contamination, and in fact the county has actually expanded the area it thinks may have been affected by these contaminants. Some residents have been using bottled water since October. Imagine having to drink, cook, and bathe with bottled water. It’s like camping.” 

The problem will only worsen as summer approaches, Mr. Osborn said. “Then there’s the issue of diminished property values. Imagine these people trying to rent or sell their property, given everything that’s going on.”

The town has offered bottled water to affected residents, and at a town board work session on March 6 discussed making point-of-entry treatment systems available to homeowners with contaminated wells, while also pursuing an inter-municipal water infrastructure grant to connect affected residential properties to public water. Given the expected timeline of the latter project, in which the Suffolk County Water Authority would act as lead agency, the board expressed a desire to pursue the former initiative as a short-term measure. 

Ms. Shipman, could not be reached for comment yesterday. Mr. Osborn said his client was referring questions to him. “I expect that more people will come forward and want to participate in the lawsuit,” he said yesterday. 

Ms. Shipman works as a project manager for the Osborn Law Group, Mr. Osborn’s firm. It was she, Mr. Osborn said, who alerted him to the discovery of contaminated wells after receiving notification from the county in October. 

Paul Giardina, a former official with the  Environmental Protection Agency who ran unsuccessfully for a seat on the East Hampton Town Board last year, said yesterday that the situation in Wainscott is very serious from multiple perspectives.

“This is a significant chemical that causes significant health concerns,” he said of perfluorinated compounds. “The fact that the lawsuit is calling for medical monitoring in the future . . . is important. I don’t think anybody in Wainscott who had a well test or is in this situation should overlook the importance of future health tests.” 

In addition, homeowners’ ability to rent or sell their property is now severely compromised, Mr. Giardina said. Most worrisome, though, is the prospect that Wainscott’s restaurants and takeout food stores may also have contaminated water, he said. “That widens the group of people who might sign up to this suit. Frankly, I have talked to several citizens who, my impression is, will join in the suit.”