Officials probe Yaphank radioactivity

Newsday May 31, 2011

Officials are investigating contaminated groundwater in Yaphank where tests last year showed unusual levels of radioactivity in a plume thought to originate at a large compost transfer station. The pollution was first discovered in 2009, when it hit a private well at a home on Horseblock Road southeast of Long Island Compost's Great Gardens compost facility.

Some say agencies should have moved more quickly to identify the source of the radioactivity. Officials do not yet know whether it is man-made, or whether it stems from the compost itself, which is made elsewhere and taken there to be cured and bagged.  "Is is the result of natural processes? We need to nail that down," said Peter Scully, regional director of the state Department of Environmental Conservation, which leads the investigation. "This is very unique . . . even if it is very, very low."

Long Island Compost president and chief executive Charles Vigliotti said in a statement the company would "sit down with the DEC and review the findings. If a problem is found to exist, we will take whatever steps are necessary to remediate the situation."

Radiation can occur naturally in rocks, soil and water. But detections in groundwater are quite rare on Long Island, according to a Suffolk health department review of historic water-testing data. The plume also contains levels of manganese -- a naturally occurring element that can affect the nervous system at high doses -- that far exceed state drinking-water standards.

Over the next week, state environmental and health officials will collect soil and groundwater samples from the facility and nearby area. The samples will be sent to a state lab to determine the source, type and quantity of the radioactive materials present. "Based on our current analysis, there is not an immediate health risk," said state health department spokesman Jeffrey Hammond.

Critics say local and state agencies have been slow to address the contamination. While Suffolk health officials advised resident Larry Horton last March not to drink water from his well, the home was only connected to public water a few months ago, according to his wife, Donna Horton.

Last July, a Suffolk health department memo recommended a comprehensive investigation into the plume, citing "severely degraded water quality" and the risk of contamination to other private wells and the nearby Carmans River. But little further action appears to have been taken until last month, when state and county officials formed a task force after environmental advocate Adrienne Esposito requested related documents.

"We've had the data for over a year now," said Esposito, executive director of the Citizens Campaign for the Environment in Farmingdale. "Our agencies need to aggressively move to find the source of the problem."

The July memo identified the source of the plume as a large compost pile at the southeast corner of the Great Gardens transfer station. It said 2010 tests of soil and groundwater in and around the facility detected particle activity that indicates the breakdown of radioactive elements.

"There was definitely a need for more testing there," said Martin Trent, former chief of the Suffolk health department's office of ecology, who retired in August. He said staff reductions may have contributed to the delay. Suffolk health department spokeswoman Grace Kelly-McGovern said the July memo was a "preliminary report that required further review and investigatory steps."