8 former Long Island military sites may have hazardous waste, unexploded ordnance
By Emily C. Dooley | Newsday | Published: April 20, 2014
Eight of the 17 former military installations on Long Island could have hazardous or toxic waste or unexploded munitions present, but the federal agency in charge of the sites lacks the funding to conduct recommended safety investigations, according to documents and federal officials.
Three of these sites have had inquiries planned or recommended since 2008 to better detail the type of hazardous or toxic materials present, but the inquiries were never funded.
Transferred from military property to federal, state, local and private lands decades ago, the defense sites are run by the Army Corps of Engineers, which has a backlog of about $500 million in cleanup or investigative projects in the New York and New Jersey area, agency spokesman Gregory Goepfert said.
"That's what they call woefully underfunded," Goepfert said. "It will be at least five years before we could be able to get back to these [Long Island] sites."
Federal fact sheets state that eight of the local sites could contain hazardous or toxic materials.
Nationwide, there are more than 10,000 potential sites in the Formerly Used Defense Sites program and cleanup projects are planned or underway at about 2,700 of them. The program was created in the mid-1980s and about $5.8 billion has been spent through fiscal year 2012, with ultimate costs expected to be $14 billion, according to a FUDS fact sheet.
Budget appropriations fund the program, on average, about $238 million per year, and the initiative overseeing Long Island falls under the jurisdiction of a New England office, which gets about $12.5 million annually, said Heather Sullivan, manager of the Corps' New England district FUDS program, which oversees New York.
"There are thousands of projects throughout the country," she said.
Funding to clean up sites is based on risk. The recent focus in the region has been on Raritan Arsenal in New Jersey and on Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn. "Our general rule is to keep the projects that we are working on going," Sullivan said.
"In terms of if people should be concerned, they should be aware," Sullivan said. "It could be decades before we get back to some of these sites."
State DEC officials have input in deciding where funds should be allocated, and most of the 17 sites were inspected between 2005 and 2012, she said.
DEC officials said they have discussed using FUDS money for the 14 Long Island sites without outstanding investigations, but they are not high priorities. "We will continue to advocate for the cleanup of all FUDS sites, but due to the [Army Corps] limited funding, the sites . . . are not currently identified as high priority sites," DEC spokesman Peter Constantakes said.
New York State has 104 formerly used defense sites, according to federal records.
Ten of the Long Island sites, which now range from parks to research centers, are in Suffolk County and seven are in Nassau County. Long Island's military history dates to the Revolutionary War, and installations that served as missile sites, fighter training facilities and shore defense batteries span the region, from Sands Point to Montauk.
Three Suffolk sites are included on New York State's Superfund registry of inactive hazardous sites, but the Department of Environmental Conservation has an agreement with the Department of Defense to oversee cleanup, Constantakes said.
Two places -- Suffolk County Army Airfield and Bombing & Gunnery Range and the Suffolk County Air Force Base -- are in Westhampton. Both were part of a sprawling World War II military installation used for fighter pilot training, bombing and gunnery ranges and a fighter interceptor base. Many of the former facilities now house portions of the Francis S. Gabreski Airport, Suffolk County Police facilities and a BOCES building.
In 2008, perchlorate was discovered in the water, though not exceeding health standards, and in 2009, residual munitions chemical compounds were discovered in soil and groundwater. Both findings came after Army Corps visits.
Remedial investigations or studies were recommended in both cases but have not happened.
Officials were told they were not time-critical, said Antony Ceglio, the airport manager at Gabreski, which is owned by Suffolk County. "They did recommend some future investigations but they haven't come back and done anything yet," Ceglio said.
Munitions debris found
In 1996, a practice rocket was found but no other explosives have been discovered. "It's been so long," Ceglio said. "Probably unless you dig into the soil, you won't find anything."
Munitions finds are common given the military history, Sullivan said.
"A lot of our sites will have munition debris," she said. "If we ever find anything that we know is an immediate risk, we take care of it immediately."
At Camp Hero in Montauk, which operated as a gun battery defense site under the guise of a New England-style fishing village to fool German spies, the Army Corps has recommended a hazardous, toxic and radioactive waste investigation, but it has not been funded.
Pamphlets are available throughout the state park warning people that if they see ordnance to back away and call authorities. Buildings are painted with signs warning of hazardous material.
George Gorman, spokesman for the state Department of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, said he was not aware of a study being ordered, but that "In the areas that are open to the public, there are no safety concerns."
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Army Corps visited the site three times to remove old oil tanks and transformers, check buildings for pollutants, remove asbestos and to look in some areas for ordnance, said Tom Dess, director of Montauk-area parks for the state. "The base had one spot in the past where they blew up ordnance to get rid of it," he said.
A 2009 site inspection of select locations at the park for munition debris uncovered nothing of concern, and the explosives safety manager made one recommendation: "Maintain all current protective works, i.e. signs, pamphlets and continue to allow the site to revert to its original vegetated state," he wrote in a document obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. "This will keep the public on the maintained trails and out of areas where they could potentially contact ."
Two sites on Fishers Island
Fishers Island had two installations -- a harbor defense site called Fort H.G. Wright that operated from 1879 to 1948, and a fire con station. Federal officials believe both sites could contain munitions, and redevelopment on two parcels of the latter site has not happened because of suspected explosives, federal records show. Further investigation was recommended, but it is unclear if that happened.
Pierce Rafferty, who wrote a book about Fort H.G. Wright and is director of the Henry L. Ferguson Museum on Fishers Island, has met with the Army Corps about the sites and shared maps of the area. As for explosives, "I don't think they've found much in that sense," he said.
After superstorm Sandy in October 2012, several items, including a uniform, washed up on shore, though none were dangerous. "A number of little objects were brought in, buttons, dog tags," Rafferty said.
Nassau's seven sites ranged from serving communication needs and pilot training to naval device testing and equipment production. Two may have hazardous and toxic waste or ordnance present, federal documents show.
The first is the former Mitchel Field, which was used during the Revolutionary War for troop encampments and during World War II for training. The site is occupied by Hofstra University, Nassau Community College, Nassau Coliseum and Mitchel Sports Complex.
Sands Point Preserve is the other site. Created in the early 1900s by Howard Gould, son of the railroad tycoon and financier Jay Gould, the land was once a Gold Coast estate complete with castle. Industrialist Daniel Guggenheim bought the estate in 1917. It was sold to the Navy in 1946 and became home to the U.S. Navy Device Training Center, which operated in two buildings on the campus and employed 800 civilians. Nassau County took over ownership in 1971.
"They did have some labs and there was some testing that was done," said Jean-Marie Posner, executive director for Friends of Sands Point Preserve.
Federal records show that hazardous and toxic waste and ordnance could be present, but Posner said that is unlikely. "Other than some green paint, there was nothing that was still locked up," she said. "We haven't found anything, unless it's hidden somewhere."