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19th-Century Process Left 21st-Century Mess



GLANCING out her home-office window here in 1999, Janine C. DiNatale was puzzled to see a stranger setting up a table on the sidewalk. She went outside and saw two other men, who were wearing hoods and full-body protective gear and were probing the ground.

“I was concerned, so I asked what’s going on,” recalled Ms. DiNatale, a graphic designer. One of them explained that they were testing for pollution and handed her a card with a KeySpan phone number. Later, the company reassured her that there was “no risk to human health” from whatever they were examining, Ms. DiNatale said.

Today, her neighborhood is ground zero for one of the biggest toxic cleanups in Long Island history.

A few blocks from her home, a giant tent was pitched last year to trap the hazardous dust and vapors raised as masked workers inside it began excavating polluted soil — 85,000 tons to date. Crews will also pump chemicals and oxygen into the ground to aid decontamination, all at a cost estimated at $82 million.

The pollution sometimes shows up as a sheen in backyard pools or infiltrates basements and storm sewers, residents of the area say. It can emit telltale odors of petroleum, mothballs or driveway sealer.

The culprit is contamination from manufactured gas, which was made or stored at thousands of places around the nation from the 1800s to the mid-1900s, when it was supplanted by natural gas. Now the residue of that bygone process, which sparked the gaslight era, can be found in several sites across Nassau and Suffolk Counties. Its ingredients include several carcinogens, and the residue has become the Island’s newest frontier in confronting pollution threats to humans, wildlife and groundwater.

“It’s an absolutely mind-boggling problem,” said Walter Hang, founder of Toxics Targeting Inc., which provides Internet maps of documented contamination sites in New York.

Bay Shore has the worst manufactured-gas pollution in New York, the state says, and a second major plume is seeping across northwest Hempstead Village. That contaminated site and others in Babylon, Glen Cove, Halesite, Patchogue and Sag Harbor are due for cleanups at a total cost that could equal the bill for Bay Shore.

Angry residents and frustrated health officials charge that the work in Bay Shore is decades overdue. They blame inaction by a succession of utilities responsible for the site, compounded by lax state enforcement.

The cleanup is being done by National Grid, which last year bought KeySpan, which had inherited the problem from Lilco, as a result of its taking over the operations from earlier gas companies.

“KeySpan has been dragging its heels” and covered up the problem, several residents charged in a suit pending in State Supreme Court. They called the site a “long-ignored and festering environmental time bomb.”

National Grid declined to comment on the suit but said it was committed to solving the inherited problems. “It’s a legacy issue, and we take it very seriously,” said Charles F. Willard, the company’s director of site investigations and remediation.

Thick files in the lawsuit reveal government regulators’ recognition of the pollution dating from the 1970s. Weak laws of that era limited intervention, the state says. In the 1990s, Lilco pressed its insurers to help pay for a cleanup but did no work. KeySpan agreed to a consent order in 1999, but work did not begin until last year.

“It languished for a long time,” said Ronald Paulsen, a hydrogeologist at Suffolk’s Health Department, which has been at the forefront of getting manufactured-gas contamination cleaned up. “It’s been an ordeal to get this level of cooperation.”

Delays allowed the pollution to spread, creating more exposure and making the cleanup harder and costlier, critics say.

The old plants, long since demolished, processed coal or oil to make gas, initially for street lamps and then for cooking and heating. That system became obsolete when modern pipelines brought natural gas from other regions.

Gas manufacturing left a noxious byproduct: coal tar. It is a reddish-brown or black oily liquid composed of dozens of harmful ingredients, including acetone, arsenic, benzene, cobalt, cyanide, lead, naphthalene and trichloroethylene.

Though no illnesses have been traced to the pollution in Bay Shore, the plaintiffs in the suit say that no epidemiological study has been done and that long-term effects are unknown. The suit demands, among other things, the creation of a trust fund to pay for monitoring.

Pollutants pose hazards through contact, inhalation and contamination of the ground — the source of all of the Island’s tap water. “Three million people are drinking from the ground with no backup whatsoever,” Mr. Hang said.

Much of the groundwater near the surface on the Island is already too tainted for consumption, so suppliers have drilled deeper for clean water. So far, the manufactured-gas contamination has not reached those wells, water officials say.

Bay Shore’s pollution traveled horizontally under some 120 properties, including homes, businesses, houses of worship and a Y.M.C.A.

Ms. DiNatale said that, like most people, she “had never heard of gas-manufacturing plants.”

“The biggest factor is our kids,” said her husband, Joseph, a school administrator.

The DiNatales recently had five test holes drilled in their backyard, a few feet from the pool and swings where their three daughters play. Preliminary results this month showed groundwater contamination.

Ms. DiNatale and her neighbors formed the Bay Shore M.G.P. Task force, of which she is co-chairman. While she expressed “hopes that National Grid will pull us out of this,” her group and Suffolk health officials have misgivings about the effectiveness of the cleanup and wonder if it is stirring up pollution.

National Grid said that it had hired expert consultants and contractors, that the state approved and monitors the project and that repeated testing will be the ultimate arbiter. A state environmental remediation director, Robert W. Schick, said the methods “are pretty much tried and true remedies” and “the approach is working the way it was supposed to.”

In addition to health concerns, there are worries about reductions in property values, which some residents avoid talking about. “There is a lot of fear about admitting something hazardous is here,” Ms. DiNatale said. The utility has bought some properties in the plume area, including a luxury home near a creek. The cleanup managers said that those properties were still habitable but that the land was needed to enable work on the site.

One of the plaintiffs in the suit is Robert V. Nicholson, who said that he bought a two-story brick office building at 22 Oak Street in 2000, only to discover that it was surrounded by pollution. He said that he sold it in 2006 at a severe loss and was bankrupted. “I’m trying to recover my life,” he said.

Though the contamination is underground, much of the remediation is visible on the surface. Near the Long Island Rail Road tracks, there is a gray vinyl tent, 100 feet wide, 115 feet long and 50 feet high, that funnels vapors and dust into ventilation filters.

Inside, workers in respirator masks operate heavy-duty equipment that digs out polluted soil, as deep as 25 feet in spots, which will be trucked out of state.

Other crews pounded metal sheeting 80 feet into the earth, forming a 600-foot-long underground wall to halt the pollution’s drift. Workers will inject liquid oxidation chemicals into the groundwater to break down toxic substances, and pump oxygen into the earth to promote bacteria that digest contaminants.

Echoing the problems in Bay Shore, Hempstead’s pollution has also prompted shock and exasperation.

“When I realized where it was, I said, ‘Oh my God, I’m sitting on it’ ” said Leone Baum, a retiree in a co-op apartment building at 20 Wendell Street. Tests detected no harmful vapors from the plume under her building, she said

But the plume is thousands of feet long, and some land above it has shown elevated readings.

Mayor Wayne J. Hall Sr. attacked the inaction: “If they knew about this, why did it take this long to do something?” A Nassau County legislator, David Denenberg, said that for decades, “not a gram of soil or ounce of water was removed or remediated.”

Though the immediate neighbors bear the brunt of the contamination, all of National Grid’s gas customers on the Island could be affected, because the state ruled that the cleanup cost could be added to monthly bills.

The suit demands that the company pay, instead. The residents’ lawyer, Irving Like, said that his clients were especially offended that “your health is at risk, your property value is reduced — and you’re getting the bill for the cleanup.”