Experts disagree on most crucial steps to improve island’s drinking water

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From left Dorian Dale, Sarah Meyland, Steve Blank and Paul Granger at Blank Slate Media's panel on Long Island's drinking water at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Shelter Rock. (Photo by Teri West)

Much of Long Island’s underground aquifers, which provide the island’s drinking water, contain chemicals, but local water experts have not yet come to a consensus on whether these substances pose a danger to residents or how to address the problem.

To some, like Suffolk County Director of Sustainability Dorian Dale, the priority is finding funds to channel toward water treatment. For others, like water specialist and New York Institute of Technology associate professor Sarah Meyland, the creation of a regulatory agency to focus its efforts on preventing contamination in the first place is long overdue.

While best solutions are a matter of opinion, the facts of the situation remain – substances on Long Island’s surface have seeped deep underground and into the water that flows into taps, Meyland, Dale and Port Washington Water District Superintendent Paul Granger agreed at a public discussion last Thursday evening. The panel, which weighed in on the island’s drinking water, was organized by Blank Slate Media and moderated by Publisher Steven Blank at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Shelter Rock.

“We have a collection of some of the most significant issues around groundwater supply out of any place in the United States,” Meyland said. “That wasn’t the way it was 50 years ago.”

It is a result of Long Island’s industrial history and household activity in which unregulated chemicals have been used directly above the drinking water source, she said.

Those chemicals are gradually being detected in the water, including 1,4-dioxane, which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says is likely a carcinogen.

Treating water will be expensive, Dale cautioned.

Treating wells for 1,4-dioxane on Long Island would cost about $840 million, according to the Long Island Water Conference, a group of water suppliers and officials involved in the industry. That figure could cause household water bills to more than double.

Ten water districts in Nassau County are currently suing chemical companies Dow Chemical Co., Ferro Corp. and Vultan Materials Co, which they say manufactured the chemical on Long Island. The intention is to ensure that the companies bear the cost of removing 1,4-dioxane, Manhasset-Lakeville Water District Superintendent Paul Schrader told Blank Slate Media in January.

“We have infinite problems but only finite resources,” Dale said.

Throwing money at existing problems, however, is not a universal solution because it ignores the issue of prevention, Meyland said.

There is no central agency on Long Island that regulates groundwater, despite such entities existing in other communities across the county, she said.

“Our challenge is to start looking sooner for these chemicals that we suspect are a health risk or a contaminant and stop them from getting into the environment,” Meyland said. “That means being stronger on our discharge programs.”

The cost of creating such an agency is significantly less than those associated with treatment, she said: It would only cost each resident $3.50 per year.

But Dale said Long Island should be hesitant about introducing yet another layer of government.

The Long Island Commission for Aquifer Protection, established by the Nassau and Suffolk County Legislatures to maintain the island’s drinking water, is opposed to such a regulatory committee, Meyland said.

As for whether Long Island’s water is safe to drink, none of the three panelists offered a solid “yes” or “no.”

Granger said he and his water supplier colleagues drink it and are confident in doing so.

Wells in his district with relatively significant amounts of 1,4-dioxane were taken out of service, he said.

In December the New York State Drinking Water Quality Council encouraged the state’s Department of Health to adopt a maximum contaminant level of one part per billion for 1,4-dioxane. While no national standard exists, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said that .35 parts per billion of the chemical is equivalent to a one in a million chance of getting cancer.

“You have a better chance of getting struck by lightning than having the possibility of having cancer,” Granger said, referring to the health guideline.

Still, New York does not yet regulate the chemicals.

“Other states have been much more aggressive in dealing with these chemical than New York state has,” Meyland said.

In the meantime, water suppliers are working on finding the best treatment solutions.

“In some cases, detection technology is outpacing treatment technology,” Granger said.

The best thing for residents to do is to educate themselves on what’s in their water, he said.

It is also important to put pressure on regulatory agencies, Meyland added.

And while Dale agreed with the two other experts, he added one piece of advice: Don’t panic.

“I think that our health departments would tell you that your water’s pretty good,” he said. “But, yes, you need to be alert to some of the related concerning factors that are occurring and that we’re becoming increasingly informed of.”

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