East Hampton Non-Profit Maintains Soil Contamination, Utility Company Denies Responsibility

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The ongoing battle between PSEG Long Island and residents of East Hampton continued this week, as a local nonprofit now alleges the utility company is in violation of New York State law by not removing “contaminated” soil around utility poles in the town and village.

Long Island Businesses for Responsible Energy (LIBFRE) hired third-party consulting group Dermody & Menagio Consulting in April to test the soil around the utility poles, which have been installed as part of PSEG’s project to create a “reliable” and “redundant” electric system for residents from East Hampton to Montauk.

Peter Dermody, principal hydrogeologist at the firm, said his study showed that penta is present in the soil around several poles at concentrations as high at 250,000 mcg/kg—nearly 300 times the amount allowed by New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Unrestricted Soil Cleanup Levels.

Penta, short for pentachlorophenol, is a chemical and typically a wood preservative not available to the general public, according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s website.

According to LIBFRE’s attorney Irving Like, “if you have excessive concentrations or chemicals such as the chemicals that are applied to the poles, or … the ones in the soils that the poles are installed in, you are violating regulations and limits that are described by the DEC on the state level. And the DEC works closely with EPA, which oversees this nationally.”

The Department of Environmental Conservation issued a Penta Reregistration Eligibility Decision in 2008, finding that it “considered the available information and, after a thorough evaluation of the risks and benefits associated with each use, has determined that the wood preservative uses of Pentachlorophenol will not pose unreasonable risks to humans or the environment.”

Furthermore, according to the Penta Reregistration Eligibility Decision, “there are approximately 60 million utility-owned wood poles and 54 million crossarms in service across the United States which have been treated with wood preservatives,” and “approximately 36 million of the wood poles in service have been treated with pentachlorophenol.”

PSEG Long Island maintains that it “did not apply Penta to the poles,” said PSEG’s Director of Communications Jeff Weir. “We have not been provided all the data, including quality assurance or quality control data, related to the Dermody report, and we will not speculate about these matters.”

So what is the “thick oily substance that contained a phenolic odor” around the poles, alleged by Mr. Dermody?

According to Mr. Weir, a “wood preservative expert” suggested that the substance around the pole may be from “‘slumping,’ a term for the migration of the oil-borne preservative toward the base of a utility pole,” which is “common with many oil-borne preservatives (such as Penta) and protects the groundline area of the pole from ground contaminants including moisture, fungus and insects (termites).”

As for the heightened concentration found in Dermody & Menagio Consulting’s report, Mr. Weir said that because PSEG has “simply installed the poles that have been treated with Penta by their manufacturer,” the utility company has “no plans to sample and chemically analyze the soils described by the Dermody report, as there hasn’t been any spill or discharge that would justify such sampling and analysis.”

Furthermore, said Mr. Weir, “a wood preservative expert has informed us that approximately 55 percent of the millions of utility poles in the United States have been treated with Penta.”

Mr. Like has also alleged that because of the high levels of “contamination” around the poles, neighboring wells and thus drinking water could be affected.

“PSEG is required by New York State regulations to remove the contaminated soil,” he stated, adding that if it does not, the utility company could be violating the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act.

However, PSEG states it is “unlikely that drinking water would be adversely affected by Penta-treated utility poles. Tens of thousands of Penta-treated poles are located on Long Island, and the available drinking water data indicates that Penta has not been detected,” according to a statement from Mr. Weir. “Penta, due to its strong hydroxyl group on the molecule, binds rapidly with soils, including sandy, silica based soils such as those on Long Island, thereby preventing or hindering any potential migration into groundwater.”

Rebecca Singer, co-chair of LIBFRE, said she has contacted the governor’s office, as well as the New York State Commissioner’s office, PSE&G New Jersey, PSEG Long Island, the LIPA Board of Trustees, in addition to locally elected officials, and has yet to receive an answer as to who is responsible for the cleanup of the “contaminated soil.”

“It’s not a question of whether or not there’s Penta in the soil,” said Ms. Singer. “It’s whose job it is to clean it up. Nobody wants to take responsibility.”

PSEG is also still in the process of pending litigation with East Hampton Town, which issued a stop-work order at a LIPA substation in Amagansett. The substation is the end-point for the 23/33-kV transmission line slated to provide “reliable and redundant” power from East Hampton to Montauk. The utility company, in turn, filed a temporary restraining order, which was denied by the State Supreme Court as well as the Court of Appeals, as well as a preliminary injunction against the town.

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