Twenty years after drinking water wells in Jamaica were closed due to fears over toxic contamination, the city is planning to reopen the wells and introduce the water into the public drinking supply.
At a meeting last Thursday in Jamaica, officials from the Department of Environmental Protection said they hope to tap the wells in order to reduce Southeast Queens’ chronic basement flooding and to add volume to the city’s water capabilities.
But local residents say the plan leaves them in an awkward position that forces them to balance the need to stem the flooding with long-standing suspicions of their tap water.
“This is a real double-edged sword,” said Joseph Lockett, who lives on 175th Street. “This is going to be a real hard sell here, but at the same time, something has to be done.”
The controversy centers around a former dry cleaning distribution plant, owned by the now-defunct West Side Corporation, at 107-10 180th Street.
Wells near the plant were shut down in the 1970s and 80s because of concerns that perchloroethylene, a dry cleaning chemical commonly known as PERC, had entered the water supply.
Tests conducted last year by the state found PERC more than 40 feet below the 4.5-acre property. Smaller concentrations were found in the groundwater up to a half-mile away.
While ostensibly protecting the public’s health, a side-effect of closing the wells was that the naturally high water table in Southeast Queens began to rise.
Most residents have tried to cope with the rising waters by purchasing pumps or valves that control water during heavy rains and sewer backups. The devices, however, are expensive and not always effective.
After being approached by local elected officials and community groups, the DEP devised a plan that would control flooding and expedite the cleanup of the West Side site as part of a study to develop new water sources, according to Deputy Commissioner Douglas Greeley.
The plan calls for six wells to be reopened at DEP’s Station 6 at 108th Avenue and 164th Place. Although the station is located about three-quarters of a mile from the contaminated West Side site, those same six wells were among those closed in the 1980s.
Greeley anticipates that the wells will add 100 million to 200 million gallons per day to the drinking water system when the station is fully operational in 2005.
In order to avoid drawing PERC-contaminated water from the West Side site into the system, the city is also proposing to reopen Station 24, which is right next to the West Side site.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation has been developing a cleanup plan for the West Side property for two years, but the actual work has been delayed because of budget battles among state lawmakers.
The city says it would expedite the cleanup by drilling one well that would pump, treat and remove contaminants from the groundwater, which would then be pumped into sewers.
DEP hopes to have the Station 24 well open for at least six months before beginning a pilot program at Station 6.
The road to realizing the project, however, is lined with obstacles, including its proximity to other contaminated sites.
On Merrick Boulevard and 107th Avenue, the Metropolitan Transit Authority is in the middle of a five-year project of pumping 95,000 gallons of fuel out of local groundwater below the Jamaica Bus Company depot. That site is less than a quarter-mile from Station 6.
“They need to finish pumping that fuel out first before the other project can begin,” said Yvonne Reddick, district manager of Community Board 12.
Without question, however, the largest obstacle will be community opposition. Meetings to discuss the cleanup of the West Side Corporation site in the past have been highly emotionally charged.
And while state Health Department officials have said that the contamination was limited and that it occurred nearly two decades ago, residents have ordered tap water testing at their homes as recently as this summer.
Following anxious calls from constituents, State Senator Malcolm Smith urged the state to undertake a cancer cluster study last year. The study is currently underway and should take another year to complete.
Manuel Caughman, whose Brinkerhoff Action Association sponsored last week’s meeting, said that he is approaching the city’s proposal with an open mind, but he needs to be convinced that local drinking water is as good as water from upstate reservoirs that the rest of the city gets.
He added, however, that the city’s proposal to dispose of PERC-contaminated water from Station 24 into sewers that easily back up into resident’s homes “is simply relocating the problem.”
Project officials acknowledge that Jamaica residents are not likely to greet their proposal warmly, but note that several steps are being taken to ensure the community is involved with decisions.
The DEP has proposed that a scientific advisory panel, consisting of 10 members appointed by the agency, will serve as an independent group that will be charged with delivering and interpreting scientific information about the plan to residents.
A community advisory panel, which will include elected officials, civic leaders, residents and clergymembers, is in formation.
Helen Neuhaus and Associates, a prestigious public relations firm based on Park Avenue in Manhattan, has also been hired to serve as a conduit for public information.
“We realize that this is not a typical project,” Neuhaus said. “That’s why we are starting outreach as early as possible.”
DEP plans to hold its first public meeting to discuss its proposal in late November. The Chronicle will publish information about the meeting as soon as a date is announced.