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Understanding the Bethpage Plume

     If there is one thing that people associate with Long Island, besides our waterways, it is our role as the “Cradle of Aviation”.  In Bethpage, both of these characteristically Long Island features have converged in the increasingly concerning form of the “Bethpage Plume”.  Though the water problems in Bethpage are frequently discussed in the media, there may be some question over what exactly a “plume”, a body of polluted groundwater, is and how concerned residents should be over the contamination of water in Bethpage.  While these questions are easily answered, it is important to first take a look at the history of the impacted area in Bethpage to understand the problems that we face today.

    The site of today’s Bethpage Plume began as a manufacturing facility for the United States Navy and Grumman Aerospace Corporation in the 1930’s. Throughout the operation of the site, Grumman and the U.S. Navy produced thousands of planes for World War II and the Korean War as well as the Lunar Module which brought humans to the moon. Through these intense land uses, however, the site of the Grumman/Navy facility quickly became contaminated with pollutants and by the 1970s, volatile organic compounds had been discovered in the area’s water supply. By 1983, the contamination had become so significant that New York State added the site to the official list of hazardous waste superfund sites.

     Today, the groundwater plume from the Bethpage facility spans 1.8 miles wide, 3.7 miles long and up to 800 feet deep. Contaminants that have been found or suspected in Bethpage’s water supply have included the carcinogen trichloroethylene, 1,4-dioxane, radium and nearly two dozen other toxic contaminants. Much of the concern surrounding this plume is the continuing movement of the contaminated water towards Long Island’s South Shore and Atlantic Ocean. In fact, it is estimated that the plume moves approximately one foot to the Southeast each day. If the problem is not alleviated by 2037, experts predict that more than 100,000 customers of the surrounding area could see their water supply endangered by the plume’s contaminants. In response, this year state officials have called for the closing and replacement of five of Bethpage Water District’s nine wells to try to fight against the spread of the plume.

     Despite these dire circumstances, however, hope still exists that the Bethpage plume can be contained through aggressive mitigative action. In December of last year, the Cuomo Administration announced the details of a $150 million action plan to clean up the plume, which includes the construction of fourteen new remediation wells across the Bethpage community. These wells will pump and treat millions of gallons of water each day. The State Department of Environmental Conservation has also undergone the process of drafting a feasibility study on how to contain the existing plume and prevent it from expanding into other communities on Long Island. These are good first steps that must be built upon in order to restore a safe environment and clean drinking water for the residents of the Bethpage Water District. Above all, the history of the Bethpage groundwater plume is a sobering reminder of the negative consequences that living on top of the water that we drink can have if we do not take wise land use decisions into consideration and dedicate ourselves to the stewardship of our aquifers.

     Join the Long Island Clean Water Partnership today to stay abreast of important updates on the effort to restore our water quality and to learn about how you can contribute to protecting the island’s delicate aquifers.