The briefing was important enough for Senator Chuck Schumer to leave John McCain’s wake in Washington and fly into Gabreski Airport on Friday, August 31, and then return in time for the funeral early the next morning.
Leaving the momentous occasion of his friend’s passing underscored the seriousness of the business at hand, Schumer said.
“I care about this a lot,” he told a half-dozen county and state officials gathered at the Westhampton National Guard base. He was referring to a bill that would make the U.S. Air Force responsible for the costs of cleaning up drinking water in Westhampton.
The Independent, the first local newspaper to report that U.S. Air Force and National Guard bases have polluted civilian drinking water supplies, was invited to attend the gathering by the senator.
Senators Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand earlier in the week shepherded an amendment to a Senate Appropriations Bill — fittingly called “The McCain Defense Authorization Act — through the Senate. If the amendment is added to the McCain Act, it will reimburse states, counties, and water authorities that have allocated funds to clean drinking water contaminated with PFOA/PFOS, chemicals commonly used at U.S. Air Force and National Guard bases.
There are three bases identified so far in New York including Gabreski, in Westhampton Beach, home of the 106th National Guard, and Stewart Air National Guard Base (Newburgh), home to the 105th Airlift Wing of the New York Air National Guard, a state Superfund site.
For years, the bases used a type of foam for aircraft emergencies and training purposes that contained PFOS, or perfluorooctanesulfonic acid, which has been linked to cancer and other medical problems. The Independent learned the chemicals routinely leaked to drinking wells near the facilities, but adopted a policy of not being proactive — waiting until municipalities identified a problem before starting an investigation into the possible causes.
“We endeavored to force the Air Force to pay and they resisted,” Schumer related. “We forced them to admit it.”
There will be $45 million made available nationally for cleanups in communities surrounding affected bases, including $4.8 for the Westhampton site, the senator said.
Schumer, visibly moved by his experience in Washington earlier in the day, strayed from his prepared briefing to offer insights into his relationship with McCain, his fellow Senator.
“He was one of my closest friends. We spent the day together the day he voted against their health care plan.” Schumer said McCain traced his lineage all the way back to Scottish kings in the Middle Ages — the McCains were always fighters. “His father and grandfather were both admirals,” Schumer noted.
He assured County Legislator Bridget Fleming that he would get an additional $300,000 to reimburse the county for its share of the cleanup costs.
The bill now moves to the House of Representatives, where Schumer said there has been some resistance. Congressman Lee Zeldin’s take on the matter accompanies this article.
There are other sites contaminated with PFOS/PFOA in Suffolk including Hampton Bays, Yaphank, and Wainscott, but the bill McCain is championing will cover only the federal sites, he stressed. The former Plattsburgh Air Force Base has also been identified as a source of the chemicals.
The worst case is Newburgh. “Unfortunately, it’s gotten to the lake,” the senator pointed out referring to Lake Washington.
Since discovering the contaminants in wells primarily south of the airport, county and state officials have expanded the test area and put affected homeowners on public water.
All of the affected homes are located south of the railroad tracks in Westhampton Beach, and between Beaverdam Creek in Westhampton and Quantuck Creek on the Quogue Village border. Since 2016, the chemicals have been detected in more than 100 private wells and early in 2018, the testing area was widened.
“Suffolk County and its Water Authority deserves to be repaid for the actions they took to respond to the contamination of their water supplies and private wells due to toxic PFOS contamination that originated at Gabreski,” Schumer said.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation added the 89-acre defense facility to the state Superfund list in September 2016.
In 2017, Mark Kinkade, a U.S. Air Force spokesman told The Independent, “The Air Force is evaluating a Suffolk County Department of Health Services report on possible sources of perfluorinated compound contamination in local drinking wells. If our review validates the data and report findings, we will work with local regulators to address the issue.”