A former Cold War missile base in Westhampton originally designed to protect the U.S. from a potential Soviet air attack is being considered as a potential inactive hazardous waste disposal site.
According to Suffolk County Health Commissioner Dr. James Tomarken, the county was notified by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation last month that the area may be considered a Superfund site. This was after polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, and polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs — toxic chemicals with human and environmental health impacts — were detected on the BOMARC Missile Base property on Old Country Road and in quantities above the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency health advisory levels at two of 54 private household wells subsequently tested.
Soil and groundwater samples were collected at the base two miles west of Francis S. Gabreski Airport and preliminary data has been shared with the DEC and is in the process of being reviewed.
“At this point we do not know the source of the PFAS groundwater contamination, but the first step is to conduct further investigation to characterize the contamination,” Suffolk County public relations director Grace Kelly-McGovern said. “Determination of remedial actions will occur once contamination is characterized.”
The Suffolk County Department of Health Services will develop a plan for the examination of the 186-acre site.
Twenty-eight profile wells were surveyed and 161 samples were collected. The data indicates that there were detections of PFAS in 26 of the 28 profile wells installed as part of this investigation. PFAS are man-made chemicals that have been used worldwide since the 1950s in the manufacturing of nonstick cookware, water-repellent clothing, stain-resistant fabrics and carpets, some cosmetics, and products that resist grease, water, and oil. PFAS manufacturing and processing facilities, airports, and military installations that use firefighting foams are some of the main sources of the chemical. Perfluorooctanoic acid, commonly referred to as PFOA, and perfluorooctanesulfonate, or PFOS, the most studied PFAS chemicals, have been voluntarily phased out by industry in the United States, though they are still produced internationally and can be imported.
Four wells had detections above the combined 70 parts per trillion health advisory level, with concentrations as high as 219 parts per trillion; nine wells had detections above New York’s proposed maximum contaminant level but below the EPA health advisory level. Two groundwater profile wells had no detection of PFAS. The remaining 13 wells had detections of PFAS below the state’s proposed drinking water maximum.
Studies indicate that PFOA and PFOS can cause reproductive and developmental, liver and kidney, and immunological effects in laboratory animals. Both chemicals have caused tumors in animals. The most consistent findings are increased cholesterol levels among exposed populations, with more limited findings related to low infant birth weights, effects on the immune system, cancer (for PFOA), and thyroid hormone disruption (for PFOS), according to the EPA.
Suffolk County health officials also performed a limited site evaluation of soil. During the initial assessment, 16 soil samples were analyzed for PCBs.
PCBs are chemicals that were used in industrial products like electrical insulators, capacitors, electric appliances, hydraulic, and microscope oils from the 1920s until banned in 1979 amid concerns. PCBs enter the air, water, and soil during manufacturing and use. Waste from the manufacturing process that contained PCBs were often placed in dump sites or landfills. Because PCBs bind strongly to soil, their detection in groundwater is very rare, according to the Suffolk County Department of Health Services. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry, the most commonly observed health effects in people exposed to large amounts of PCBs are skin conditions such as acne and rashes.
Four surface soil samples exceeded DEC commercial use soil cleanup objectives of one part per million, with levels ranging from 5.6 to 10.5 parts per million. No samples exceeded the industrial soil cleanup objective of 25 parts per million. Of the four soil samples, three were in the vicinity of the firing range and one was a parking lot used for vehicle storage. Five sediment samples from below-grade structures exceeded DEC cleanup objectives for PCBs.
“Once received, these results were evaluated by the DEC and the DEC designated the site as a potential inactive hazardous waste disposal — or ‘P’ site — site,” DEC public information officer Kevin Frazier said. “Every potential inactive hazardous waste disposal site undergoes a comprehensive investigation to determine the nature and extent of any contamination found in the area that guides response actions. Historical reviews into past uses of a site are conducted as part of this investigation, but the data received on the type of contaminants present is the focus of our efforts. The nature of past Department of Defense use as a missile maintenance facility and current use for vehicle impoundment are not such that PFAS or PCB detection would have been expected.”
Suffolk’s Department of Health Services began a survey and investigation of private wells in Westhampton in 2017 following the detection of PFOS in a public supply well located immediately south of the former BOMARC facility. The public water supply in this area currently meets all existing drinking water standards, as well as proposed maximum contaminant levels for PFAS and 1,4-dioxane.
The Westhampton missile base was operated by the U.S Air Force as one of 10 Boeing and Michigan Aeronautical Research Center facilities protecting the east coast from a potential Soviet air attack from 1959 until it was decommissioned in 1964. Fifty-six nuclear-tipped missiles were located there. After decommissioning, the property was turned over to Suffolk County, which has since utilized the property for storage of automobiles involved in serious accidents, as a law enforcement shooting range, and as a vehicle training course for emergency responders.
“Safety of employees that work at the site is of paramount importance,” Kelly-McGovern said. “We have consulted with state health officials regarding current site use, and precautions being taken at the site. We will continue to work with the DEC and New York State Department of Health as new data becomes available to determine whether changes in the use of the site become warranted.”
In addition to the private well survey in the vicinity south of the BOMARC facility, the county Department of Health Services conducted an initial environmental assessment of the site pursuant to a Suffolk County Legislature resolution that directed the department to survey the property and initiate preliminary soil and groundwater testing to determine if there are any health or environmental issues that may require remediation.
Suffolk County’s Department of Health Services plans to conduct additional soil sampling, according to Dr. Tomarken and Frazier, to further delineate the extent of the PCB contamination. Suffolk County health officials have consulted with state officials regarding the PCB levels, current site use, and precautions being taken at the site. No immediate action is indicated at this time. The county has also begun consultation with the New York State Public Employee Safety and Health Bureau for review and further guidance.
“The DEC continues to work with the county on the next steps necessary to investigate and remediate the site, and will continue to keep the community involved as additional actions at the site continue,” Frazier said. “The DEC is conducting a comprehensive, statewide effort to identify facilities with documented use of or suspected use of PFAS for fire-fighting or industrial purposes. In addition to comprehensive investigations at these sites to fully delineate any contamination, the DEC works with state partners to ensure communities have access to clean water, including bottled water, carbon filtration units, or water main hook-ups to impacted homes and businesses.”
Anyone with general questions about health effects of perfluorinated compounds are advised to call the Department of Health at 1-800-458-1158 or 518-402-7860 Monday through Friday from 8 AM to 5 PM. Residents who are unsure if they are served by public water may call the Suffolk County Water Authority at 631-698-9500. Those with private wells who have questions about private well water in Suffolk County or who wish to have their wells tested may contact the Suffolk County Department of Health Services’ Office of Water Resources at 631-852-5810.