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Source: Newsday

Many Bay Shore residents vexed by toxic plume

Tom Stringer had been alarmed since the spring, when brown oily spots began appearing on his basement floor.


Posted: October 6, 2010
Originally Published: October 2, 2010

Bay Shore resident Tom Stringer had complained to the DEC and National Grid about strange black spots in his basement. His home is directly on a mile-long plume of coal-tar toxins. He said workers in "hazardous material" vests and began digging wells around his property without notice. (Sept. 1, 2010) Stringer was at his Manhattan office on Sept. 7 when the call came from his Bay Shore home. "Something has changed," he recalled his wife, Daniele, saying. "They're wearing 'emergency spill response' vests."

Stringer had been alarmed since the spring, when brown oily spots began appearing on his basement floor. The Stringers, who moved to the house on Lanier Lane in 2003, have two small children. They and dozens of their neighbors live in the path of one of the largest toxic plumes on Long Island, one that's been under intense cleanup since 2006 after decades of lying untreated. Stringer said his persistence this summer led National Grid, which owns the property where the plume originated, to dig small holes - the company called them boreholes - to monitor groundwater around his home.

But then, his wife reported, crews started sealing the holes with grout. When Stringer e-mailed a state environmental official to ask what was going on, the response was just routine work. But the workers removed the vests, which had alarmed the neighbors. "It's like 'The X-Files,' " said Stringer, who has been trying to sell the home.

For the Stringers and other families atop and around a mile-long stretch from Union Boulevard to Lawrence Creek, fear about what lies beneath is the new normal. Many in the well-kept homes along Lanier Lane and Community Road, hopeful the plume will disperse, prefer not to talk about it. But an undercurrent of worry runs along these suburban streets, fueled by reports that another home or business has been bought by National Grid, that some neighbors can't sell their homes, and that dozens are filing tax grievances with Islip Town to challenge their assessments. Several homeowners say they are satisfied with cleanup efforts, but also worried about their homes' value.

National Grid inherited the site, where a manufactured gas plant (MGP) operated, and dozens of others around the state when it bought KeySpan in 2007. The site, once run by Long Island Lighting Co., produced vaporous gas for heating and cooking, mostly, in the days before natural gas, from the late 1800s to 1973.

Waste from the coal and oil process was routinely dumped on site and has seeped more than 70 feet underground. Removing the top 25 feet of contaminants has been the focus of recent cleanup efforts.

Possible health hazards

Health hazards tied to former MGP sites generally relate to direct contact with the oily coal tar in soil, via contamination of groundwater and in air vapor. Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons are most commonly associated with the sites and are believed to cause cancer in humans.

State and local health officials and National Grid have said there is no evidence the Bay Shore site constitutes a current health hazard.

However, one advocate said dangers lurk. "It's simply wrong for the public to be told that there are not health hazards," said Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment. "In general, health threats from coal tar plumes include migration of VOCs [volatile organic compounds] into homes, businesses and other buildings, contamination of drinking water wells and the discharge of plumes into marine waterways."

In a statement, National Grid described its progress at the site as "substantial." More than 100,000 tons of contaminated soil have been removed to date, containment walls have been installed, and water treatment systems are in place and have shown "impressive performance," the company said. More cleanup work needs to be done near the original site, the company said, which will take another two years. Monitoring and treatment will continue "beyond that time," the company said. Meanwhile, signs of the cleanup are everywhere: there's a large, unmarked treatment "campus" on Union Boulevard with ground-level vents; streets and lawns are pocked with CD-size manhole covers, marking test wells.

At least three dozen homeowners have filed tax grievances with Islip Town seeking reductions in their assessments because of value lost to the plume, their lawyer said.

"We have retained a hydrogeologist who formerly worked at Love Canal, who has a presentation which will justify reductions in tax assessments," said the attorney, Irving Like. He was referring to the toxic waste disposal site found below a Niagara Falls neighborhood in the 1970s.

National Grid said it was "not aware of anything that suggests that property values have diminished in Bay Shore" due to the plume, adding, "The Bay Shore community, like all of Long Island, has been greatly impacted by the current recession."

Meanwhile, National Grid continues selectively buying area properties. This summer, Charles Lucchetti sold his Expo Tire on Union Boulevard to National Grid, according to Islip tax records.

National Grid said it has "purchased property where necessary to implement DEC-approved remedial actions."

Some residents say the paperwork National Grid sent to them is little comfort: columns of test results listing toxin levels in wells, air-monitoring reports and maps stating safe or improving conditions. "What they send you, you have to be a scientist to figure out," said Dianna Grancagnolo, also of Lanier Lane. "How do I know what this is?"

She, like the Stringers, has tried to sell her house, but couldn't, even after cutting $100,000 off the price. Like many residents she keeps a bin full of documents about the plume including a complaint to National Grid that its heavy construction to combat the plume cracked her foundation, costing her $37,000 in repairs.

All recent tests show toxin levels decreasing and the plume dissipating, but potential buyers remain reluctant.

"Everyone asked about the plume," Grancagnolo said, and declined to buy. "It happens every single time." She's now considering dropping the price to just enough to pay her remaining loan balance, she said.

Stringer had an agent for the past six months working to sell his house. He has found no buyers. "Our office has made many attempts to bring qualified buyers to your home and we've been faced with the question of the home's proximity to the Bay Shore Manufactured Gas Plume time and again," the agent wrote.

Stringer wants health testing for current and future illnesses, payments for any reduced value of his home and assurances of a full cleanup. "This is a 25-year cleanup, which is wildly unacceptable," he said. "They've really put the entire community at risk."

National Grid said it has tested "numerous homes" around and on the plume when requested and has referred questions about the tests to state health officials.

Many are content

Many residents say they are content with the cleanup's progress and say their worries have been addressed. On Garner Lane, south of Montauk Highway, Mary Louise Cohen stood by the recently paved driveway of her home, across the street from one bought for more than $3 million by National Grid two years ago. That Tudor mansion was identified as the end point of the plume, where toxins ran into Lawrence Creek.

"They've been really good," she said of National Grid workers, who installed test wells in front of her yard.

Other homeowners say they keep in contact with National Grid officials. "I speak to my guy once a week," said Bill Sullivan, who lives next door to a home National Grid bought last year. Sullivan said he hasn't had his house tested for toxic vapor or anything else. "I've never seen a need for them to come in and test the house," Sullivan said.

As for selling his own home, Sullivan, 58, has no immediate plans but said, "When I retire, if this thing isn't cleaned up, I'm going to get pretty noisy."