After more than a month cleaning up the site of a blown ground-level transformer in Sag Harbor, the Long Island Power Authority acknowledged on Monday the presence of banned cancer-causing contaminants among the 218 gallons of oil spilled.
According to LIPA spokesman Mark Gross and New York State Department of Environmental Conservation spokeswoman Lisa King, the oil in the transformer that blew on August 21 in front of the Sag Harbor Gym, causing a power outage to Long Wharf businesses, contained PCBs—cancer-causing chlorinated hydrocarbons that were used in transformers, capacitors and electric motors until they were banned in 1979.
A survey of businesses affected by the outage last month showed none of the businesses were notified of the oil leak, let alone the presence of PCBs.
Although they differ vastly on the amount of contamination present—Mr. Gross said LIPA estimates pre-cleanup PCB levels at 3 parts per billion while Ms. King said their pre-cleanup numbers showed 178 parts per million—both said the public wasn’t immediately notified because the agencies felt there was no potential threat to residents from exposure to the contamination.
They also emphasized that no drinking water was affected by the spill, only groundwater and soil, because the closest Suffolk County Water Authority well field is located more than a mile away from the contained spill.
To put the numbers, and the two agency’s disparity, in perspective, Ms. King said the DEC drinking water standard for PCBs is .5 parts per billion and the soil cleanup objective for a PCB spill is .1 parts per million.
After more than a month of soil excavation and the pumping of more than 8,000 gallons of groundwater, the site’s PCB levels are now at .57 parts per billion, with an end goal of .5 parts per billion in “a few weeks.”
At issue though is the pre-cleanup numbers and their classification: the DEC website states that any oil from electrical equipment with a PCB content greater than 50 parts per million should be listed as hazardous. If one used the LIPA number of 3 parts per billion, the site would be well below hazardous levels. But if the DEC content number of 178 parts per million was used, then the site should have been labeled as such.
On the DEC website listing spills they oversee, the incident is listed as a simple spill of transformer oil contaminating soil, with no mention of the PCBs, the 8,000 gallons of groundwater affected, nor the hazardous PCB Oil label that a reading of 178 ppm would warrant.
During a conference call on Monday with Mr. Gross, LIPA Vice President of Operations Nick Lizanich, and National Grid Environmental Manager Martin Bruscella, Mr. Lizanich said that the site was “just about 100 percent safe.”
The trio explained that the remediation companies, Waste Recycling Solutions of Yaphank, which is removing the contaminated soil and water and H2M in Melville, the environmental engineers overseeing the cleanup, have dug wells 6 feet below the ground to ground water level, heavily pumping at the source of the spill.
Additionally, they said wells were dug 20 feet away from the site in either direction to test for seepage of the contaminants, and the wells were clear of PCBs.
Mr. Lizanich went on to say that he isn’t so sure LIPA is even to blame for the contamination.
“Even though we’re cleaning up PCBs from the ground, we cannot ascertain if they are fresh, or if they’ve been there for dozens of years,” he said, referring to decades-old environmental cleanups somewhat near the area at the hands of the Bulova Watchcase Factory, the Grumman Aerospace plant and a former submarine factory. “But, regardless, we are taking the proper steps to clean them up.”
When asked about the spill, Peconic BayKeeper and clean water advocate Kevin McCallister didn’t seem all that worried about the threat, characterizing it as not a major concern that should be able to be captured and contained in the soil if a proper cleanup ensues. Mr. McCallister did say, however, that a lot of times, the reporting of this kind of event occurs after the site and interest in the spill had already been through “damage control 101,” and is something that is troubling to him.
But village resident Simon Harrison, who owns a real estate business just down the block, said last month, before knowing about PCBs, that he was concerned about the transformer’s proximity to the harbor, whether it is just oil or hazardous materials being spilled.
“It’s a stone’s throw away, how can it not affect the water?” Mr. Harrison asked, noting that he was never informed of the spill. “The groundwater we drink and the wetlands are connected. Water seeps into the bay from the cesspools and septic systems around here over an 18-year period, and less than that if it is sandy soil like we have near Long Wharf …
“Whose responsibility is it to tell us about this?” he asked, angrily.
Echoing the sentiment of a lack of communication was the reaction of Mayor Brian Gilbride to the news of PCBs being involved with the blown transformer.
“I assumed there had to be something there, I did see a cleanup taking place, but there was no barricade that would indicate anything harmful,” said Mr. Gilbride.
“They did not notify us that there was any toxic spillage. We’ve heard nothing about PCBs,” he said when asked why the village didn’t notify residents of the cancer-causing contaminants.
According to Dee Yardley, the village’s superintendent of public works, LIPA officials aren’t required to inform the village of what they are doing at the site as long as they follow procedure outlined by the DEC and county. He also said last month that he does not believe the spill posed a danger to any nearby businesses or residents.
Ms. King said PCB spills were uncommon, but do occur in the instances of old transformers being blown, which she said LIPA has been trying to replace. The blown transformer in Sag Harbor was built in 1968, before the moratorium on PCB oil, but Mr. Gross said it had been refurbished “at least once.”