Twenty years after the closing of Lawrence Aviation Industries in Port Jefferson Station, a toxic groundwater plume and New York Supreme Court trial are still ongoing.
The abandoned plant sits on 126 acres nestled between residential streets near Sheep Pasture Road. It was once a manufacturer of titanium sheeting for the aeronautics industry but closed in 2003 after the United States Environmental Protection Agency declared it a Superfund site three years prior.
A Superfund is on the National Priorities List, which is a federal government program designed to fund the cleanup of sites contaminated with hazardous substances and pollutants.
Lawrence Aviation was “the most contaminated site in the country” at that time, according to the EPA. The estimated completion date for the clean up is December 2020, according to the EPA’s most recent five-year review report, from July 2015.
It is a site that reaks of criminal activity and neglect.
“It looks like an abandoned dystopia,” Amanda, who frequently jogs on a bicycle path that intercepts the abandoned property, said. She declined to give her last name. The site is notorious for graffiti, trespassing, and make-shift tents for the homeless.
The dumped pollutants created a groundwater plume, which is an underground concentration of contaminants that is created through the movement of groundwater in an aquifer beneath a contaminant source.
When the EPA first began treating it, was a mile long. It has since been reduced significantly and is currently 6,000 feet in width, Maria Jon, EPA State Remedial Project Manager, said.
The EPA has slowly been cleaning up after Gerald Cohen, the CEO of Lawrence Aviation, who has a long trail of criminal lawsuits dating back for almost three decades.
Cohen and his attorney, Terrence Buckley, of Commack, have a history of pushing trials and conferences back repeatedly since the lawsuit began in 2006 when he was arrested on a felony violation of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act for improperly disposing of more than 12 tons of hazardous waste. He pleaded guilty and served a year and a half in prison in July 2008 and was “ordered to pay $105,816 in restitution,” according to Long Island Business News.
Again, in December 2014, he was charged with violating the Clean Air Act, under United States versus Gerald Cohen. After paying $250,000 bail, Cohen pleaded not guilty.
In 2015, he requested a return for property, meaning full property rights to Lawrence Aviation’s former site. Then on July 1st, 2016, Cohen filed a motion to dismiss the case, which was dismissed five days later.
There is also a separate civil action case brought under the federal Superfund statute against Lawrence Aviation and Cohen. The investigation dates back to the 1980s. His most current court date for that matter was August 1, 2018.
It was here that Cohen requested the court to consider that the costs of the clean up be held against the company Lawrence Aviation and not his personal assets.
Gerald Cohen still owns property rights to the site which is preventing the EPA from knocking down several buildings on site, Jon said.
Despite Cohen’s technical ownership, the EPA has fully funded the restoration of the property. Jon said the EPA is entitled to some of the money if Cohen chooses to sell the property, since he has yet to pay for any of the damages.
A court document claimed that government estimated a total of 48 million dollars would be needed to fix the site, with 24.170 million already spent.
The EPA has since put a lean on the site, expecting by December 2020 that the property will be available for industrial or commercial use. Yet restrictions would prevent the site from being used for any residential or business facility, like for day cares or senior citizens, Jon said.
Despite the site being fully cleaned up for several years now, the trials continue for Cohen and the site is still classified as a Superfund, which makes it the EPA’s highest classification of a chemically toxic site and “poses the most significant potential threat to human health due to their known or suspected toxicity and potential for human exposure”.
Some of the toxins that were released into the soil and groundwater include trichloroethene (TCE), tetrachloroethene (PCE), TCA, DCE acid wastes, oils, sludge, metals and other volatile organic compounds (VOC).
VOCs can evaporate from groundwater and enter upper levels of soil to become vapor, which can migrate through building foundations into indoor air, according to a report by The New York Department of Health.
In the document Cohen said that the government should hold partial blame stating that they caused an environmental problem by drilling test wells at the site, citing that as the cause for vapor intrusion that effected a wrestling practice room at Port Jefferson High School in April 2008.
Yet the government holds Cohen responsible for releasing TCE into groundwater. Cohen countered that the government be held accountable as they required him to use a chemical, which wasn’t specifically identified on record, to clean manufactured parts.
The back and forth has gone on for twelve years, with no end in site as the trial moves forward for the 84-year-old CEO.
However, the EPA has since finalized the clean up of the direct site. This progress is due to two EPA-constructed groundwater treatment facilities that were opened in August 2011 at critical locations on the site and at the base of the plume which runs along the harbor’s edge.
“The cleanup is progressing well,” Elias Rodriguez, Public Information Officer for the EPA, said.
The difficulty in cleaning up Lawrence Aviation lies in the fact that the groundwater plume sits on top of a down-gradient slope that directly flows downward into Port Jefferson harbor, allowing for toxic runoff to directly flow in.
The facility “is intercepting the impacted groundwater so that the volatile organic contaminants no longer flow unabated into the harbor,” Steve Scharf, the site’s project manager, said.
“It still is contaminated,” John Sheehan, an engineering geologist, said of Port Jefferson harbor. The treatment facility is not able to collect one hundred percent of the contaminated groundwater, he said.
Despite the government shut down issued by President Trump from January 25 to February 15 of this year, the facilities were still up and running, he said.
The EPA had not been funded since December 28, 2018 and was operating with less than one percent of its staff, according to Arnold and Porter, The Chemical Compound.
“We have contractors operating the plant. There was enough funding to keep working,” Maria Jon said. “I was off though. I couldn’t do anything”.
The larger problem is that Lawrence Aviation is symbolic of the issue that lies in treating Superfund sites. They are cumbersome governmental tasks that take millions of dollars as well as decades to pursue. Long Island currently has 256 contaminated sites.