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Residents whose homes have private wells near the Enterprise Park at Calverton are concerned that storm-damaged vehicle storage on an unused runway will exacerbate the area’s already-polluted water supply, as they wait for the town to bring public water to their homes.

Kelly McClinchy, a Manorville resident impacted by water pollution and an activist for public water in the area, sent a letter to the town board last week expressing concerns that fuel and fluids in the damaged cars have the potential to leak onto the runway and further pollute the groundwater. She brought the same subject up during the town’s water forum Wednesday.

“It has come to my attention that cars in transport have already gone on fire. It has come to my attention that there are already oil pools on that runway,” McClinchy said. “That runway is built specifically so that whatever flows onto it flows off of it right into the grass. And potentially, the choice you made to put those cars there is really making another problem for the residents.”

The 7,000-foot runway is being used by Insurance Auto Auctions to store vehicles damaged by Tropical Storm Ida. IAA is exercising an option under a 2014 agreement with the town drafted after they used the runway for the same purpose post-Superstorm Sandy in 2012. Riverhead’s Community Development Agency gets paid $25,000 per year for the option to use the runway. 

IAA will pay $4,175 per acre per month for 52.5 acres on the inactive runway and taxiway — $219,187.50 per month. The company can renew the license agreement for two additional 90-day periods if necessary. The town board authorized the agreement at a special CDA meeting on Sept. 8, a day after the company began bringing vehicles onto the runway. 

“We can’t take any more from the site,” McClinchy said. “I know that you have this deal with this company, but you really need to think about how the deals you’re making at EPCAL are impacting the environment, and essentially how it’s impacting the residents right around there.”

McClinchy, who is on the Calverton Restoration Advisory Board, a citizen input group on the environmental cleanup and restoration of the former military manufacturing and testing facility at Grumman, was not the only person to raise the issue. The town heard from two residents at the special CDA meeting authorizing the agreement with the same concerns, and McClinchy’s comments got applause from the audience during the water forum.

Deputy Town Attorney Anne Marie Prudenti said the state Department of Environmental Conservation and the town’s environmental consultant, Jeff Seeman, were regularly visiting the site. The IAA is also not storing vehicles on the grass next to the runway, which was a major concern in 2012 after another property owner at EPCAL leased unpaved acreage for post-Sandy vehicle storage.

In a call on Friday, Seeman told RiverheadLOCAL that most of the vehicles held on the runway are damaged by floodwaters, not by collision. Any vehicles damaged by collision are separated from those damaged in floodwaters and shipped away within a day or two of their storage, he said. There are about 4,700 cars on the runway, he said.

Although the radiators and fuel tanks of the vehicles have not been drained, the batteries have been disconnected. Those damaged by floodwater are not physically compromised and present a low risk of leaks, Seeman said. Seeman’s inspection on Friday found no signs of leaks, he said, adding that any minor leaks would be small and left to evaporate out in the sun. IAA also has class-c fire extinguishers set up along the runway in case of a fire; the extinguishers use carbon dioxide and do not present any concern for water pollution, he said.

Seeman, a certified environmental professional who has consulted with the town on EPCAL for years, said he will continue to inspect the site in the coming weeks at the town’s request. He will also inspect the 10,000-foot runway for environmental concerns brought on by the Scrambul Runway Challenge drag racing event this weekend.

The DEC wrote in an email that officials had visited the site on Monday and that cars “were appropriately stored on the concrete runways.” No petrochemical leaks have been reported to the DEC’s Spills Response Unit yet. Spills are required to be cleaned up under strict DEC oversight, the email reads.

The water forum Wednesday allowed residents to hear from town and Riverhead Water District employees on the progress of various water district projects. The most important issue, and what took up the majority of the conversations during the evening, was the extension of public water mains to residents affected by the private well pollution.

Water District Superintendent Frank Mancini said the extension east of EPCAL, which will affect residents in the River Road area in Calverton cost $3.1 million, while the extension for residents south of EPCAL in Manorville will cost $5.8 million. The project will total around $9 million.

In spite of demands from residents, environmental groups, and state and local politicians urging the U.S. Navy — who owned the property where Grumman Aerospace manufactured and tested fighter jets and military equipment — to pay for the extensions, the Navy has denied responsibility for off-site groundwater contamination. With the Navy unwilling to pay for the extensions, and the cost of them out of reach for either the district or the residents to absorb, residents have their hopes pinned on federal aid.

Town officials expect $3.5 million to come from the federal government’s infrastructure package and $3.3 million to come from various state grant programs opening in 2022. If the funds are secured, the town believes they could bond the rest of the money, around $2 million, at low interest rates through the state Environmental Facilities Corporation. Assistant Community Development Project Supervisor Joe Maiorana said the town already has a leg up in applying for the program and could possibly be forgiven for 30% of the bond. A majority of the grants would be authorized in 2023.  

There were questions during the forum on whether the Suffolk County Water Authority would be more equipped to serve the Manorville residents than the Riverhead Water District. All town employees were in agreement that if the water authority would be the better supplier to get water to the residents, they would support the plan. However, Mancini assured residents that the water district has the capacity and ability to serve the residents if funded. He said both entities would need to find funding for the project and that the district’s cost estimate for installation was about half a million dollars cheaper than the water authority’s. He grew frustrated at repeated comments from residents mentioning the water authority. 

Although the maps and plans for both extensions have been drafted by the town’s consultant, H2M, residents were still concerned about how long they might have to wait for clean water in their homes. Based on the installation of an extension for the Peconic River Sportsman’s Club, Mancini estimated that the installation for Manorville residents could take up to 8 to 12 months after the funding is received.

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Alek Lewis is a lifelong Riverhead resident and a 2021 graduate of Stony Brook University’s School of Communication and Journalism. Previously, he served as news editor of Stony Brook’s student newspaper, The Statesman, and was a member of the campus’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Email: [email protected]