Historical aerial photo of the Naval facility in Calverton. Photo: U.S. Navy

Despite a dramatic reduction in a federal health advisory level for PFAS in drinking water announced in June by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Navy will still rely on the old EPA health advisory level to rule out intervention in areas near the former Naval Weapons Reserve Plant in Calverton, where PFAS and other chemicals have been detected in private residential wells.

The Navy did use the EPA’s new PFAS lifetime health advisory level and new screening standards to re-evaluate known and potential contamination on the Calverton site itself. It has reversed previous decisions to close out investigations of groundwater contamination at five “areas of concern” on the site and has also added a new “area of concern” for further investigation, Navy officials told community residents at a virtual public hearing this week.

The meeting was the Navy’s first public meeting about cleanup efforts at Calverton since the EPA announcement in June.

Residents were unhappy to learn that the new EPA advisory level did not change the Navy’s stance with respect to off-site groundwater pollution south and southeast of the facility, where homes without access to public water must rely on private wells. Testing detected PFAS in well water in the area, in some instances at levels that exceeded New York State’s strict new drinking water standards but were lower than the EPA’s lifetime advisory level then in effect.

The EPA in June announced new lifetime advisory levels for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, known as PFAS, because analyses of more recent health effects studies show that PFAS can impact human health at exposure levels far lower than the 70 parts per trillion lifetime health advisory level issued by the EPA in 2016. The agency reduced the lifetime health advisory level to 4 parts per quadrillion — a level so low it cannot even be detected.

There is still no federal drinking water standard for PFAS, though the EPA said in June it expected to issue a proposed national drinking water regulation for PFAS this fall. The proposed regulation has not yet been released.

The Navy has said it is not responsible for remediating off-site groundwater pollution, or even for conducting continued testing, because PFAS has not been found at levels that exceed the 70 PPT lifetime health advisory the EPA has now abandoned. And it was clear at Wednesday night’s meeting that the Navy will not change its position despite the EPA’s drastic change in the lifetime health advisory level.

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“Private wells are below the 2016 EPA Lifetime Health Advisory, so no additional drinking water sampling is currently planned,” Navy project manager Addison Phoenix said Wednesday. That is Department of Defense policy at the present time, Pheonix said.

The Navy is still working to identify and clean up environmental contamination at the Calverton facility, which closed nearly 30 years ago. Last month, the Navy finalized and released a Community Involvement Plan for the site that summarizes and explains the investigation and remediation process at Calverton. Read the Community Involvement Plan below.

The Navy’s focus remains soil and groundwater pollution at the facility itself, where Grumman (later Northrop Grumman) manufactured and tested aircraft for the Navy from the 1950s until 1996. Though the Navy transferred most of the site to the Town of Riverhead Community Development Agency in 1998, it continues a tedious and slow investigation and remediation process at the site, which will continue for at least several more years.

The process follows a framework spelled out in the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act, a 1980 federal law known as CERCLA, intended to address releases or potential releases of hazards substances into the environment, including at former military installations such as the site in Calverton.

Navy personnel and its contracted remediation firms present progress reports twice a year at public meetings of the Calverton Restoration Advisory Board, a citizens committee established in 1997 to receive updates about the cleanup from the Navy and express residents’ concerns about the process and the site. Wednesday’s meeting was the 56th meeting of the Calverton Restoration Advisory Board.

Adrienne Esposito of Citizen’s Campaign for the Environment at a January 2020 meeting tells Navy representatives that the residents’ concerns are legitimate. Photo: Denise Civiletti

Residents criticize Navy policy using ‘outdated’ standard

As this laborious process continues, local residents who believe groundwater pollution in their community emanated from the Navy installation continue to fight for a public water supply extension to serve their homes and continue to ask the Navy to help fund the cost of the extension. The Navy denies responsibility, citing the EPA’s old advisory level.

Some advisory board members, residents and officials voiced strong objections to the Navy’s stance, as they have in the past.

“The 70 parts per trillion is really a number that is outdated,” said advisory board member Adrienne Esposito, a clean water advocate with Citizens Campaign for the Environment. “Science shows us that is completely a number that should not be used to protect public health. So I just want to go on record as saying that. I know you’re using it, and I’m really concerned about why you would do that,” Esposito said.

“We have an issue with that also,” added Andrew Rapiejko of the Suffolk County Department of Health Services.

Phoenix said the state’s maximum contaminant level — currently 10 parts per trillion — applies to public water supplies, not groundwater or private wells. The state MCL would factor into a feasibility study the Navy must complete later on in the process, she said.

But the 70 PPT lifetime health advisory level was used for the off-base private drinking water wells “and that is currently the Navy policy,” she said. “I know that’s not what you guys want to hear. We understand that. But that is currently the policy,” she said.

“It still really doesn’t make much sense to me,” Rapiejko replied.

“We’re talking about all the remediation that’s being taken on site,” RAB member Catherine Karl said. “But there’s no talk about what remediation is being done for the residents where this plume is headed. So therefore, where are we — where are the residents, when it talks about acceptable risk levels? What’s the acceptable risk as far as the collateral damage for the residents of who’s getting sick, of who’s drinking poisoned water? Where does that come in,” she asked.

Kelly McClinchy at her kitchen sink in February 2020. Her family uses only bottled water. Photo: Denise Civiletti

RAB member Kelly McClinchy of Manorville called the Navy’s policy of using the lifetime health advisory level of 70 parts per trillion when they are talking about groundwater off-site is “deceiving” and “dangerous for the public.”

“I want to make it clear for the record that groundwater is our drinking water,” McClinchy said. “You can say it’s your policy. I understand. We’ve heard it over and over. But it is deceiving. And it’s dangerous for the public. They think everything’s fine, when in fact everything is not fine,” McClinchy said.

“And I don’t know why you have not informed anybody on these meetings that there are actually homes in this plume that you show. That’s just — that’s deceitful,” McClinchy added.

“It is unfair to the residents to continue to use 70 parts per trillion for groundwater related to private drinking wells. We don’t have access to public water. We would love access to public water. There’s nothing we would love more than that,” McClinchy said.

MORE COVERAGE: Water wars: Town pulls trigger on water district extension for Manorville in effort to keep water authority out of Riverhead

McClinchy and other residents of Manorville and Calverton south and southeast of the former military installation have for years been seeking an extension of the Riverhead Water District to serve their homes, so far without success due to the cost of the project. The town has received commitments for federal funding to pay part of the cost, but has come up short on state assistance needed to make the job feasible. The state has twice denied the town’s funding requests through a water infrastructure program.

MORE COVERAGE: Residents call on governor, state lawmakers to fund public water extension in Manorville

Riverhead Water District Superintendent Frank Mancini, who is also a member of the RAB, expressed his own frustration with a disconnect between the Navy’s site investigation and remediation process and community needs.

“It’s nice that we do this twice a year. But for the rest of the 363 days of the year, where we interface with the public, they’re scared, they’re concerned, they want action,” Mancini said Wednesday.

“I see we’ve got some people from the [State Department of Environmental Conservation] DEC here. The DEC essentially owns the aquifer,” Mancini said. “And they regulate it, not the Town of Riverhead. So I’ve been recently trying to communicate to the public, perhaps we will be more effective if we’re interacting directly with the DEC,” Mancini said.

Esposito agreed. “The DEC really needs to step up,” she said. “Because this is a policy that the Navy has that protects the Navy,” she said. “And the DEC is supposed to have policies that protect the public.”

DEC Record Permitting Section Chief Lynn Winterberger, an Albany official who attended the meeting, said homes with private wells above the 10 PPT state drinking water standard are offered bottled water by the agency.

Manorville resident Toni Pawson said giving residents bottled water really doesn’t help. People can drink it and cook with it. “But we can’t shower with it. We can’t wash our clothes with it. So giving us bottled water does really actually nothing for us when we need to shower, and we need to wash our clothe, and we need to put our children in bathtubs,” she said.

“Give us city water and the Navy should be chipping in and helping us out to get it,” Pawson said.

Assembly Member Jodi Giglio asked the state DEC and health department representatives at the meeting to contact her office.

“How much money are we spending, where it behooves us to connect these people to public water? How much money is the Navy spending, where it begins to be nonsensical. Just connect the people to public water and continue the process,” Giglio said.

“I mean, we’re doing testing. Testing is expensive. These filtration systems on homes are expensive. The people do have contaminants in the water, even if they’re under 10 parts per trillion,” she said. “I want to know how much money we’ve spent, since this has started with the Navy with remediating this property. Because I’m sure that we are far over the threshold of connecting these people to public water,” Giglio said.

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