If East Hampton Town loses a class action lawsuit filed by a Wainscott resident, town taxpayers may well have to pay the damages without the benefit of insurance.
Kim Ellen Shipman, a Wainscott resident, filed a class action complaint charging the Town of East Hampton and several other defendants are responsible for leaking chemicals that have compromised many drinking wells in the hamlet.
The New York Municipal Insurance Reciprocal recently notified the town that it will not cover the cost of the suit should the class action prevail.
“NYMIR has denied coverage,” confirmed Michael Sendlenski, the East Hampton Town Attorney. Two other insurance plans that he characterized as “airport related” may or may not come into play, he added.
The town is seeking damages from its fellow plaintiffs in the Shipman case — the 3M Company, Angus Fire, Chemguard, and National Foam — said Daniel Osborn of the Osborn Law Group, which represents Shipman.
Sendlenski confirmed the town is looking for other entities to at least share the blame for the water contamination. “We can’t comment on pending litigation,” he said, but acknowledged, “A number of cross claims have been filed.”
The contamination is primarily from the chemicals perfluorooctanesulfonic acid and perfluorooctanoic acid, which the town has acknowledged using and storing at the airport. In recent months, evidence has surfaced that the chemicals are much more dangerous than originally thought. If Wainscott residents who have been drinking the water for a long period of time start exhibiting health problems related to the water, they could sue for monetary damages, Osborn noted.
Sendlenski and others believe the chemicals may have been used in many capacities over the years, some off-site from the airport. The greatest concentration is likely from firefighting foam, used at airports for years to extinguish engine fires and by local volunteer firemen who trained there.
There’s a half-dozen nearby facilities and businesses that may have at one time contributed to the PFOA/PFOS pollution including a fire fighting facility, a carpet cleaning business, and a factory that built fuel caps for aircrafts.
“The town would be liable for allowing the discharge, but once you get into contamination the liability gets pretty wide,” Sendlenski said.
Arthur French, a Wainscott resident, has town water delivered, as do many of his neighbors, at the town’s expense. He recently had his drinking tested and herbicides were found, which he suspects were sprayed periodically by the Long Island Rail Road across its right of way through Wainscott.
“This is an ecological disaster,” French said. “It’s the rape of Wainscott.”
Osborn pointed out more than 100 homeowners who authorities say “refused to give permission” to have their wells tested probably don’t even know a problem exists. That’s because there is no mail delivery to Wainscott residents; they must go to the central post office. Yet when the Suffolk County Water Authority sought to inform them of the problem, the letters were sent to street addresses and eventually marked undeliverable.
“The mail gets rejected because there is no home delivery,” Osborn said. “The town should hold a meeting and explain.”
East Hampton Town wants to provide funding for water filtration systems for each affected house while it goes through the legalities of forming a Wainscott water district. County water, at a cost of more than $24 million, will then be installed, and the cost will be repaid over 20 years — half by Wainscott residents who hook up to the water, and the rest by the town’s taxpayer base.
Wainscott residents say they don’t want to pay for any of it, since the town caused the problem. “It’s completely inequitable,” Osborn said. “Most people are not happy.”
New York State Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Chuck Schumer last month charged the Trump administration is withholding a study that found PFOA and PFOS are even more dangerous than previously thought. Eight other senators signed a letter demanding the Environmental Protection Agency release the study.
“I am deeply disturbed by reports that the Trump administration and top EPA officials are blocking a report vital to protect public health. This is a clear dereliction of duty, and the American people need and deserve to know just how harmful PFAS [polyfluoroalkyl substances] and PFOA are to the body. Any attempt by the administration to mislead or suppress this new information is an affront to communities in Newburgh, Suffolk and across the nation now confronting toxic PFOA-PFOS contamination in their drinking water and beyond,” Schumer said.
Osborn may go after the town with another suit. Wainscott residents, “who have lost rental income or a real estate sale attributable to the contamination, should contact me. I am contemplating a separate suit for any damages we can tie to the PFOA/PFOS problem and I do not want to get those claims dragged down by the rest of the class action,” said Osborn.