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Serious Gasoline Spill Comes to Light

We wanted to answer the question: What is going on with the Exxon Mobil gas station at the corner of Steamboat and Middle Neck Road that suddenly closed and was left boarded up overnight? The Great Neck Record learned late Friday afternoon that there is a serious gasoline spill containing MTBE on the property and no one yet knows how far, how deep and how wide the MTBE has seeped into the ground. It has raised questions of who knew what and when did they know it?

The situation came to the attention of the Water Authority of Great Neck North when the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) called the Village of Kings Point’s Building Department to ask for permission for a monitoring well, a well for the sole purpose of periodic or continuous testing of water quality, to be dug on village property. Mayor Michael Kalnick, who also serves as chairperson of the Authority, “saw a red flag” and immediately called Superintendent Gregory Graziano and learned that the water authority had no knowledge of such a spill, serious enough to trigger the need for an offsite monitoring well.

What we do know now is that in August of 2007, Exxon Mobil notified the DEC that in the course of preparing for a site upgrade they had discovered through borings performed that there was contamination on the property from a tank leak. They wanted to investigate further.

In November of 2007, the DEC gave approval for their work plan.

In May of 2008, Exxon Mobil sent the DEC a report of their findings that indicated that one of the monitoring wells contained MTBE concentrations as high as 10,500 ppb  (parts per billion). Methyl tertiary-butyl ether (MTBE) was a gasoline additive that was banned in New York State in 2004 because it had been implicated as a human carcinogen. It is difficult and costly to remove MTBE from the water supply once it has entered the aquifer. MTBE is a volatile, flammable and colorless liquid that has a turpentine-like smell. It mixes readily with water and, unlike many other contaminants, can move as quickly underground as water does, usually at a rate of 1 foot a day.

In October of 2008, the DEC rejected Exxon Mobil’s proposed plan because it was not considered thorough enough to fully determine the extent of possible contamination off-site.

And so in October of 2008, Exxon Mobil sent a proposal to the owner of the Kings Point Gate Apartments, also known as the rent stabilized Academy Gardens Apartments, requesting permission to perform borings and/or install monitoring wells in their parking lot. (During this same time frame, the owners, S&S Equities, were applying for zoning permits from the Village of Great Neck to construct a luxury apartment building on the site.) According to the DEC timeline furnished by their public information officer Bill Fonda, on March 2009 the DEC learned from Exxon Mobil that S&S Equities had been “unresponsive.”

Finally, in April of 2009, a Ms. Suham of S&S Equities verbally denied access to their parking lot.

In August of 2009 after having been barred from tapping into the apartment building’s parking lot, Exxon Mobil submitted a plan which focused on attempting to find a public right of way for monitoring well installations.

Mayor Ralph Kreitzman states that he “had no idea that there was a serious spill and that the village attorney Steve Limmer had been in touch with attorneys for Exxon Mobil.” Although Mayor Krietzman is on the board of the water authority and Mr. Limmer has served for many years as counsel to the authority as well as to the villages of Great Neck and Kings Point, neither one mentioned the situation to the superintendent, the chairman or other board members. Mr. Limmer told the Record that in fact Exxon Mobil had started digging a monitoring well without village permission and it was at this point that he was called in to work out an agreement between the two parties. He said that he had not mentioned the matter to anyone from the Authority because he was “under the impression that it was a routine procedure for deactivating a gas station.”

Superintendent Graziano said, “We have four active wells in the vicinity of the spill. It is essential that we get a handle on exactly where and how deep the spill has penetrated. We are urging the DEC to push Exxon Mobil to use geo-probe technology so that mapping of the spill can be done more quickly.” He explained that 1-inch rods are driven into the water table, immediately extracted and sampled for a real time analysis of contamination levels. He said, “It’s a little more expensive at the front end, but it pays off later.” He added that we could know the shape and size of the plume in weeks...not years. Ongoing monitoring wells would still be needed to provide constant vigilance, but they can be placed more strategically if water experts can “take a better snapshot of a plume of contamination.”  Mr. Graziano described that plumes are often long and narrow, shaped like the fingers on a hand. Pinpointing them quickly and accurately is essential to effective and efficient remediation.

Mr. Graziano also told the Record that his contact at the DEC gave him a different number regarding the level of MTBE found. His source told him the analysis showed up at 38,000 parts per billion. The Record asked him to translate the concept of parts per billion for the layperson. If you added one teaspoon of MTBE to an Olympic size pool, that would be 1 part per billion. To come up with 38,000 ppb, you would have to add 38,000 teaspoons to the pool. (38,000 teaspoons converts to 40.4 gallons.)

Mr. Graziano’s source also told him that the spill was due to a “catastrophic failure.” Our contact, Mr. Fonda, told the Record that the DEC suspects that the leak came from a vapor recovery system tank due to the fact that the usual gasoline contaminants, BTEX (benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylenes), were present in minimal quantities.

Chairperson Michael Kalnick said, “We should have known about this long ago. If a plume is heading in the direction of one of our wells, we need lead time to design and construct a stripping plant that cleans the water of contaminants. We always take a pro-active approach.” It takes up to 2 years to design and construct such a treatment facility.

Mayor Leonard Samansky, who serves as the chair of the water authority’s environmental and conservation committee, said, “I am appalled at the failure of the DEC to take appropriate action including notice and we will continue to investigate all aspects of the matter to be sure that this kind of failure does not happen again whether it involves changes in DEC rules or practices or changes within the Authority.”

The Record asked the DEC why they did not notify the Authority when they first had an inkling of the problem. According to Mr. Fonda, the DEC handles up to 3,000 spills a year on Long Island, some minor and some major in scope, and does not have a protocol in place to notify municipalities and water producers of each and every incident. In addition, oil/gas spill maps used to be easily accessed on the DEC website when the Record first began reporting on the perils of MTBE a decade ago. Even Mr. Fonda admits that now those reports are more “buried” on the website. Further, he says that generally plumes move in a northwesterly direction in an aquifer and that the DEC had estimated that it would take 9.5 years for any plume from the gas station to reach any of the Authority’s drinking wells.

Both Mr. Graziano and Mayor Kalnick stressed that the drinking water supply is safe, that the water authority provides water quality to levels above state standards and that there is no MTBE in the wells currently. Both said separately, “We just don’t want to lose any more time in making sure that MTBE doesn’t reach our wells.”

Mr. Graziano added that there are some private wells in the area and that people using private well water should contact him directly at the water authority (482-0210) for more information.