The charred remains of vehicles burnt in a fire late Wednesday night on the runway at EPCAL where flood-damaged vehicles are being stored. RiverheadLOCAL photo.

A fire last night on the Calverton runway where flood-damaged cars are being stored has alarmed local residents who objected to the storage arrangement to begin with out of concerns about possible environmental impacts — prompting one angry resident to demand their immediate removal.

Kelly McClinchy, who lives in a Manorville neighborhood just south of the former Grumman facility, which is owned by the town, and has been an outspoken advocate for the extension of public water to the approximately 60 homes in the area, today demanded that the town remove the vehicles immediately.

McClinchy went to the podium during a special town board meeting called today on an unrelated matter to renew her complaints about the the town storing flood-damaged vehicles on the runway.

“When you passed the resolution a few weeks ago to put those cars out there, some of the residents throughout Riverhead, came to this microphone, and they told you what their thoughts were, what their concerns were, and every single one of the five of you passed that resolution anyway,” McClinchy said.

“I contacted you by email. The only response I received was from the town clerk, doing her job, saying she received my email. Not one of you responded to my concerns — not one,” she said.

“We came here for the water forum, and I brought it up that night,” McClinchy said, referring to a public forum held by the town board last week about water quality issues in the town. “When we expressed our concerns to you again, and we clearly said, a fire at that site is going to be dangerous. And what happened? Seven days later, exactly one week from the water forum, those cars went on fire,” McClinchy said.

“You put our police department at risk. You put Manorville Fire Department at risk, and you put those residents at risk,” McClinchy said. “This is on all five of you. When I asked questions about it at the water forum, you deferred to your attorney and you deferred to [Riverhead Water District Superintendent]Frank Mancini,” she said. “When I ask questions to the board, I don’t want to hear from them. I want to hear from you. What you have done is wrong,” McClinchy said.

“And I’m here today to tell you: get rid of those cars at EPCAL and do it immediately. We don’t care about your contract, we don’t care about how much money you’re putting in your pocket at our expense. Get rid of them before somebody gets hurt,” she said.

Board members did not respond to McClinchy, except the town supervisor who simply said, “Thank you for your comment.”

Flames engulfed vehicles parked on the 7,000-foot runway at EPCAL late Wednesday night. RiverheadLOCAL photo

The fire late last night torched five vehicles parked on the edge of the 7,000-foot inactive runway at the former Grumman site, known as the Enterprise Park at Calverton, or EPCAL.

According to police, they received a call at 11:24 p.m. about a vehicle explosion at the site and arriving officers found a vehicle, later identified as a Tesla, fully engulfed in flames.

The flames spread to four other nearby vehicles, including three other electric vehicles. The electric vehicles are parked separate from the gasoline-powered vehicles, Riverhead Police Chief David Hegermiller said in an interview this morning.

Batteries in the gas-powered vehicles are disconnected for storage, so as to avoid fires, but the batteries in electric-powered vehicles can’t be disconnected and remain energized, according to officials. That’s why they are parked in an area separate from the other vehicles, they said.

First responders used heavy equipment to lift a burnt-out vehicle off the runway last night. RiverheadLOCAL photo

Town Attorney Robert Kozakiewicz said he believes there are about a dozen electric vehicles being stored on the runway — not including hybrids. He said the total number of vehicles being stored there fluctuates, as some come and some are removed daily. When last he heard, he said, there were about 1,500 vehicles parked there.

The town leased the runway following Superstorm Sandy in 2012 to Insurance Auto Auctions. That agreement drew sharp criticism from some environmental advocates. However, there were no fires or other incidents reported during After that, in February 2014, the town signed an option agreement with the the company, agreeing to lease the the runway again in the event of another catastrophic event. IAA paid $25,000 per year for the option. The company exercised its right under the option agreement after the remnants of Hurricane Ida dumped record rainfall on the New York metro area Sept. 2.

Under the current agreement, IAA will pay the town $4,175 per acre per month for 52.5 acres on the inactive runway and taxiway — $219,187.50 per month for three months (pro-rated in September due to an existing agreement with a drag racing promoter that affected the runway’s availability at the beginning of the month.) IAA has the option under the agreement to renew for two additional 90day periods.

Residents near the former Navy site, which has documented groundwater and soil pollution problems as a result of military aircraft manufacturing, testing and fire training activities there over the decades of Northrop Grumman’s occupancy, objected to the new lease right away. Some spoke out at a special Community Development Agency meeting Sept. 8, before the board voted to approve a runway use agreement with IAA. (The town board members sit as the governing body of the CDA.)

In a Sept. 9 email to the town board, McClinchy said she was “appalled” by the board’s decision to approve the agreement.

“Storage of damaged, salvaged, and junk vehicles presents a danger of leakage of various contaminants,” she wrote, expressing fear that potential contamination from leaking vehicles would worsen water quality issues for residents south and southeast of the facility whose private wells are already contaminated and who have no access to public water.

By approving the vehicle storage, she wrote, the board “created an opportunity for our water, and, in turn, our health, to continue to be negatively impacted by this polluted site.”

The New York State DEC confirmed earlier this month that it signed off on the use of the runway for auto storage, as long as vehicles were parked on the cement runway and not on the grass. The agency said today it last visited the site on Sept. 20 and found the cars were “appropriately stored on the concrete runways with no cars stored on any grass areas.”

McClinchy said in an interview this morning she has heard from numerous residents who contacted her to express outrage over last night’s fire. She called for a full investigation by DEC.

McClinchy emailed the DEC to request its intervention.

“Because this area is hydrogeologically complex and environmentally sensitive, the residents are requesting the DEC to presently, and routinely, visit this site and inspect it thoroughly for presence of any contaminants that can cause further contamination to groundwater and affect the environment,” she wrote.  “If sources of possible contamination of any size are found to be present, the residents would like to work collaboratively with the DEC to ensure that these cars are removed immediately so as not to negatively impact the surrounding environment.”

DEC received no spill reports as a result of the incident last night. “Out of an abundance of caution, DEC is investigating to confirm all appropriate steps were taken to ensure no petroleum or other contamination issues occurred during the incident,” the agency said.

McClinchy and other residents said the runway lacks a drainage system and fluid runoff onto the unpaved area would inevitable in the event of a leak, especially if it rains.

Rain is likely what sparked the fire in the electric vehicle that touched off last night’s conflagration, according to officials.

Manorville Fire Department responded to the scene with two engines and a tanker, Manorville Fire Department Second Assistant Chief Joe Rosario said in a phone interview this morning. Riverhead Fire Department and Wading River Fire Department responded to Manorville’s mutual aid call with tankers to help supply Manorville with water.

Battery fires are high risk because they are not easy to extinguish, Rosario said. After the fires were put out and the chief released his firefighters from the scene, one of the electric vehicles ignited again and Manorville firefighters were called back to the runway at about 3 a.m. The vehicle was again fully engulfed.

In addition to water, firefighters used firefighting foam to extinguish the blaze. The foam that’s currently approved for use by environmental regulators does not contain per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known as PFAS, a known carcinogen. Older formulas for firefighting foam did contain PFAS and posed a risk to the health of firefighters as well as soils and groundwater.

Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, an advocacy group that focuses on water quality issues, said she remains very concerned about the contents of firefighting foam nonetheless. “Who knows what other chemicals are in that stuff and what their impacts might be?” she asked.

Esposito and McClinchy both serve on the Navy’s Restoration Advisory Board, a community-based advisory group that the Navy informs about the progress of its ongoing cleanup efforts at the facility. The RAB acts as a liaison to the community at large.

“The worst thing about this is that it was predicable and preventable,” Esposito said in an interview today. “What happened here was absolutely foreseeable,” she said.

“This is what happens when they base policy solely on money and not on the environment,” Esposito said.

Supervisor Yvette Aguiar said this afternoon the town entered into an option agreement with IAA in 2014 and when IAA exercised its option after Ida, the town had no choice but to sign a new agreement with the company. Breaching that agreement would have significant financial consequences to the town, she said.

The supervisor also said the foam used to put out the fire last night is “environmentally safe.”

DEC said since March 2017, only foams that do not contain or break down in the environment to PFOS or PFOA are allowed to be used for firefighting. “They are currently considered to be less toxic and have reduced bioaccumulative potential compared to the former C8 firefighting foams which do contain or breakdown in the environment to PFOS or PFOA,” DEC said in an email.

Editor’s note: This story was updated to reflect comments from the DEC received after publication.

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Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.