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Letter: Aquifer System Still Being Replenished

The story “Underfoot and Underappreciated - Water, Slipping Through Our Fingers,” that appeared in the Dec. 4 issue of the Massapequan Observer perpetuates the misunderstanding that the Long Island aquifer system is being overpumped and overused. This is simply not true. There is sufficient data that has been established over the last 75 years that supports the fact that although the aquifer system has undergone periods of reduced elevations, it has continued to be replenished.

The severe media-driven scare in the 1980s that the Nassau County sewer system and overpumping by water purveyors was causing the upper glacial aquifer to run dry and that salt water would intrude into the magothy aquifer resulted in two very important decisions. First, the New York State DEC applied water pumpage caps on each and every water purveyor and although relaxed, they remain in effect, and second, caused the Nassau County Department of Public Works to intensify studies regarding the impacts of sewering to the upper glacial aquifer (recall that the Nassau County sewer system was specifically built to protect our water supply from contamination, and not due to cesspools and septic tanks overflowing as many continue to think).

The Long Island aquifer system is perhaps one of the most studied underground water supplies with climatological and groundwater level data being kept by various agencies including the USGS and Nassau County dating back at least 75 years. Comprehensive groundwater studies by numerous agencies date back over the past 60 years.

The DPW studies revealed some most significant findings:

• Nassau County incurred a fourfold increase in population from 1940 through 1960, and that, on a temporary basis, impacted the aquifer.

• There was a drought from 1960 through 1968 that was severe and was thought to be compounded by water purveyor overpumping. However, tree ring studies indicated that within the previous 300 years there was a similar drought condition.

• Sewering of Nassau County also had a temporary impact on the upper glacial aquifer and although at that time it was thought to be the final cause of streams and ponds drying up this was simply not the case. Changes made to the Long Island landscape mainly by roads, parkways and expressways seriously impacted the headwaters to many of the streams that flow along the South Shore. Roadways such as Hempstead Turnpike, the Southern State Parkway, Meadowbrook and Wantagh parkways directly changed how the headwaters to these streams received their water and in fact redistributed the run-off through the roadway drainage systems instead of the natural stream recharge. One of the best examples of how the Long Island landscape and aquifer recharge system was permanently altered is the fact that the Long Island Expressway is directly over the prime recharge zone. It is important to realize that rainfall distributed over the 10 to 12 lanes of the Expressway may now be directed away from the prime recharge zone especially from Plainview/Syosset to Route 110.

• The DPW was able to revitalize Meadowbrook Creek along the Meadowbrook Parkway to demonstrate that flow could be regenerated in that Creek simply by removing the silt and sand that is the residual effect of roadway storm flow drainage into the creek. However, be that as it may groundwater elevations continued to rise even after the brief drought in the 1980s. Further evidence of the resilience of the aquifer system is the need for the MTA to pump out many subway stations in Brooklyn and Queens due to the groundwater table rising.

Simply put, water quantity is not the problem. Of course the need to educate and use conservation methods must be reinforced at every level. There are many water districts that continue to educate locally; however, the need for the school districts to embrace the importance of aquifer conservation and preservation must be enforced.

 The problem that is most critical to the health and well-being of all water consumers was overlooked in your article and touched upon lightly at this forum. It is the very real water quality problem generated by the numerous contaminated plumes that exist and grow throughout the aquifer system.

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and the Federal Environmental Protection Agency have both been ineffective in the cleanup of existing severely contaminated and often Superfund designated sites. This contamination has critically impacted and diminished the quality of our sole source aquifer. In spite of the fact that over 25 years ago the water quantity issue was brought under control, many groups and the media continue to perpetuate the misunderstanding that water quantity is the No. 1 issue and therefore keep these agencies in a comfort zone regarding water quality. Simply put, the media is not supporting the cleanup of these major Superfund sites such as Grumman in Bethpage, Liberty in Farmingdale and many others throughout Nassau County. This is the No. 1 water issue, and has been for the past three decades.

It seems these agencies, the NYSDOH, NCDOH, EPA and DEC are being allowed to negotiate consent orders that rely on “well head treatment” to clean up the contamination to drinking water standards. This causes public water supply purveyors to clean up the raw water already impacted by contamination to the levels that both the DEC and EPA require. In simple terms it is like inviting a disease into your body and hoping that the prescribed cure will work. These very water districts that have been vilified by former County Executive Thomas R. Suozzi, are the only professionals doing anything about this massive groundwater contamination issue.

Let us face facts; there is no need for the DEC or EPA to “stand on ceremony” requiring lawsuits studies and consent order negotiations that not only take decades to resolve and cause millions of taxpayer dollars to be spent that result in not 1 gallon of water or cubic yard of soil being remediated until the consent decree or consent order is entered into. The sad part is that most of this contamination was deposited at a time when these “principal responsible parties” were acting under the direction of government agency requirements and laws that existed. It wasn’t until the initiation of the Nassau County sewer system that there was a comprehensive approach to groundwater protection. In the mid-1960s it was the Nassau County Departments of Public Works and Health that in effect produced the first industrial waste treatment requirements aimed directly at limiting and controlling the types of waste that could impact the aquifer. It is also most interesting to note that while these “principal responsible parties” were conforming to all federal and state government legal requirements, it was the local government that understood the problem and began to change how aquifer system water supplies had to be protected. It is also interesting to note that almost 20 years after the Nassau County industrial waste treatment program commenced that the EPA initiated a national pre-treatment program that basically elaborates on and encompasses the original Nassau County industrial waste program.

Therefore, it should interest the media to question why the EPA and DEC are spending millions of taxpayer dollars to negotiate and enter consent decrees, when the fact of the matter is that at the time the contaminant materials were deposited the “principal responsible parties” were utilizing the only legal means of disposal available? Further, one public agency condemning another public agency such as the EPA and the Navy Department at the Grumman site in Bethpage not only wastes taxpayer money and does not render a cleanup, but forgets the fact that Grumman and the Navy produced the weapons necessary to help keep this country safe over the past 70-plus years. Let us not forget the work done for NASA including the LEM that saved the astronauts of Apollo 13, and landed on the moon several times.

Is it really necessary for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and the Federal Environmental Protection Agency to continue to look for a scapegoat, or is it easier and cheaper to clean up the site and protect the health and well-being of the people in the path of these contaminated plumes?

If these agencies are truly there to protect us, (and we certainly know that the technology to clean up these sites and recover and treat these contaminated plumes exists and has worked), then why don’t these agencies effect the remediation? One of the most contaminated Superfund sites discovered was at the old Nassau County Bus Garage in East Meadow in 1981. The Nassau County Department of Public Works spearheaded that cleanup effort. The designated “responsible party” and the Nassau County Department of Public Works designed and operated a system that not only kept the contamination from continuing to exfiltrate from the site, but also recovered and treated the contaminated plume to drinking water standards and injected it back into the aquifer. To no one’s surprise 25 years later the EPA has delisted that site. This time proven contain, pump and treat methodology can be applied to numerous other contaminated sites, including Grumman in Bethpage.

Therefore, while the story discusses water quantity and raises the need for another agency to oversee the consumptive use of our sole source aquifer, it does not address the true problem, the contamination of our water supply and the reliance on wellhead treatment for remediation purposes. Although I agree wholeheartedly with education, and conservation, which should be a fundamental requirement in the education of our young, I do not agree that we need another agency to oversee quantity issues. We do need the media to focus on the lack of results in the cleanup and remediation of EPA and DEC controlled contaminated sites and not the prosecution of principal responsible parties unless their actions were after the groundwater protection ordinances and laws were put into effect.

John F. Caruso