The dry-cleaning disaster: Remediation begins on one of New York’s superfund sites

The dry-cleaning disaster: Remediation begins on one of New York’s superfund sites

Hewlett, NY is the home of one of the nation's many superfund sites, the Peninsula Boulevard Groundwater Plume. Superfunds are areas where the EPA has determined that the release of toxic wastes has necessitated emergency clean up actions. (DanTD/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0)

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Superfund sites, places designated by the EPA as contaminated with hazardous waste in need of a response, have changed thousands of lives, often for the worse.

Exposure to many of these sites poses significant environmental and health risks, the chance of which is startlingly high as millions of people across the country living within one mile of a superfund site.

One potentially disastrous site is the Peninsula Boulevard Groundwater Plume, located on Long Island in Hewlett, New York, where a tetrachloroethylene (PCE) groundwater plume, a contaminated water source, is flowing toward a local water plant.

The corner of Hamilton Avenue and Peninsula Boulevard in Hewlett, NY. I am standing at the location of the Peninsula Boulevard Groundwater Plume site, a superfund site where toxic waste is scheduled to be cleaned up over the next two years. (Harrison Wells Dengel)

Superfund sites are super not-fun

If the plume were to ever make contact with the water plant, the drinking water of the several thousand-person town would be contaminated and the people would be put at risk of a number of health conditions such as irritation of the eyes, skin, nose, throat, and respiratory system, as well as liver damage and potential cancer risk.

This site was placed on the EPA’s National Priorities List back in 2004. Now in 2022, remediation still has not begun, with the most recent progress being the issuing of a proposed plan back in 2017.

I was fortunate to be able to speak with Julio Vazquez, the remedial project manager of the Peninsula Boulevard Groundwater Plume, who has been with the EPA for over 20 years now and manages multiple sites on Long Island. We spoke about the superfund process, his site, and the work that goes into it.

Cleaning up a dry cleaning mess

“It started with the release of dry-cleaning product into the ground by a local dry-cleaner. The state began an investigation into this when they discovered a much larger underground plume of PCE (a chemical often used in dry cleaning, that when disposed of improperly can contaminate groundwater). After dealing with the dry-cleaner, they referred the plume to the EPA.”

The chemical structure of tetrachloroethylene. (Johannes Botne, CC BY SA 3.0)

The dry-cleaner business was deconstructed in the 1990s, stopping the possible source of the plume. But now the EPA had to carefully consider their options. For a superfund site to make it to the National Priorities List, it must first be examined and given a hazard ranking.

“All information goes into a hazard ranking system, if the site is at least 28.5 it is eligible to be a superfund site. Peninsula Boulevard ranked 50,” said Vazquez, referencing a 2004 determination by the EPA.

A long road ahead

As the potential for drinking water contamination skyrocketed the site’s score, the EPA sent out information to the community immediately, initiating a complicated and lengthy process. 

“A public meeting is held, where we show a proposed plan, this recommends a remedy to the site and the public has an opportunity to weigh in,” said Vazquez.

After the public is informed, they have an opportunity to weigh in with their thoughts and have the chance to influence the entire cleaning process. They are not required to go to town hall meetings, though they also have the ability to call or email the EPA, whose employees are readily available to receive their feedback.

As of 2017, the estimated total cost of remediation will be $24,738,821. Remedial action on the site finally began in September, and is expected to be completed by fall of 2025. Once the remediation begins, surrounding areas have to be closed off for a period of six months as work is done. As a result, it can be challenging for businesses in the area to operate at full capacity.

The site is years away before it can be considered clean, but progress has begun.

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