LIPA Crews Still Cleaning Contaminated Soil Three Weeks After Transformer Blew In Sag Harbor

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A ground-level Long Island Power Authority transformer blew in the heart of Sag Harbor Village on August 21, spilling an estimated 200 gallons of oil into the soil, though business owners closest to the site say they were never notified of the contamination.

LIPA spokesman Mark Gross, who stated on the day of the incident that the utility would have to follow “proper environmental cleanup” but never said a leak had occurred, clarified this week that the utility immediately notified the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation and the Suffolk County Department of Health about the spill. He added that LIPA has been in touch with the DEC throughout the remediation process and, almost immediately, hired a company, Waste Recycling Solutions in Yaphank, to remove the contaminated soil. Environmental engineers with H2M in Melville are overseeing the cleanup.

Mr. Gross added that the remediation work, which is now in its third week, has taken this long for a variety of reasons including: the confined area where the busted transformer was located; the fact that crews had to break through two layers of cement to reach the pollution; and the slow nature of soil testing, which could take up to three days.

“There is a lot of infrastructure and building there, we have to be careful and go a little bit at a time,” Mr. Gross said. “We just sent soil out for another test; hopefully, it’ll come back clean or the area will be coned off for the next few days.”

He said he could not estimate how much soil has been removed to date.

“When the cleanup is done and successful, [the DEC] will write up a full report on the situation,” Mr. Gross added.

A spokesman for the DEC did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

While the cleanup might be ending soon, those who live and work near the transformer said this week they are worried over the lack of communication regarding the incident. Village resident Simon Harrison, who owns a real estate business just down the block, said he is concerned about the transformer’s proximity to the harbor.

“It’s a stone’s throw away, how can it not affect the water?” Mr. Harrison asked rhetorically, 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.

Next door to the spill site, at Salon Xavier, salon coordinator Lynda David praised LIPA workers for what they did immediately following last month’s power outage, which lasted about two days and affected about a dozen businesses. Still, she noted that neither she nor other staff were given any information about the extent of the contamination.

Across the street from the Sag Harbor Gym, on whose property the transformer was located, The Corner Bar staff member Dede McCann said there has been a lot of talk over the past few weeks about the constant stream of waste trucks entering and leaving the site.

“Of course I’m worried to hear about 200 gallons of anything being spilled, let alone oil,” Ms. McCann said. “I’ve got a child I’d like to see be able to swim around here and drink the groundwater. Why wouldn’t they tell people this?”

Tracy Mitchell, the executive director of the Bay Street Theatre, which she said went without power for close to five days due to the blown transformer, said she knew there was a hazardous spill right off the bat because of the men and women in hazmat suits. She also lamented the “absolute lack of communication” on LIPA’s part regarding the incident. Ms. Mitchell even alleged that the cleanup crews had been instructed to remove PCBs, cancer-causing chlorinated hydrocarbons that were used in transformers, capacitors and electric motors until they were banned in 1979.

The ensuing cleanup, however, has gone mostly unnoticed by others, so much so that at Tuesday night’s Sag Harbor Village Board meeting, when the monthly report of public works for August was read into the record, it simply stated that there was an outage of “an electrical power transformer at the Malloy building (Long Wharf), causing a major outage.” There was no mention of an oil spill.

According to Dee Yardley, the village’s superintendent of public works who wrote up the report, 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 he does not believe the spill poses a danger to any nearby businesses or residents.

But the reaction of Dockside employee and North Sea resident Leslie Slavens summed up how most locals feel about the spill: “Oh my God, that is awful. Don’t they have an obligation to at least tell people?”

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