SHAI Forum Highlights ExxonMobil MTBE Investigation

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At the SHAI forum (l. to r.): back row, SHAI board members Raymond Eshaghoff, David Ohebshalom, Ben Kohanmehr,Tania Eshaghoff, Parisa Bokhour, Environmental Chairperson Michael Harounian, President Pargol Khadavi, Mike Delafraz, Lee Harounian and David Pour; and front row, panelists Laura Weinberg, president Great Neck Breast Cancer Coalition; Dr. Jed Myers, senior project manager for ATC Environmental Group; Christopher Engelhardt, Division of Environmental Remediation at the DEC; Gregory Graziano, superintendent Water Authority of Great Neck North, and moderator Carol Frank, Great Neck Record.(Photo Credit: Neil Harounian)

Carol Frank | February 24, 2012 | | Shared as an education material

The environmental forum, recently sponsored by the Sephardic Heritage Alliance, Inc. for the community, provided a rare opportunity for the public to meet some of the experts who are involved in the investigation and eventual clean-up of the ExxonMobil gasoline leak containing methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE) that has sullied the uppermost level of our aquifer system. While the investigation is ongoing, we do know that the plume has not reached drinking water wells.

There was also much information shared about measures homeowners can take to make their homes healthier by avoiding the use of pesticides and certain products that are proven to be carcinogenic.

The discussion led off with Water Authority of Great Neck North Superintendent Gregory Graziano who explained that there are three major layers of underground water that comprise the aquifer system on Long Island. The one closest to ground level is the Upper Glacial Aquifer. This aquifer has been polluted by the ExxonMobil gas spill and the good news is that the Authority does not tap into this level for our drinking water.

The second level aquifer is the Magothy. It is the largest of the aquifers. It attains a maximum thickness of approximately 1,100 feet and is the source of most of the water for all of Long Island. It can be 600 feet below land surface.

The next important geological layer in the system on Long Island is the Raritan Clay formation. It takes a very long time for water to perk downward through clay. It separates the Magothy from the deepest, oldest and purest body of water, the Lloyd Aquifer. Underneath the Lloyd is bedrock.
In Great Neck, five of our drinking water wells comes from the Magothy, and there are five wells that tap into the Lloyd for a total of 10 working wells. Most of the wells are at a depth of 400 feet.
Mr. Graziano assured the public that the Authority stepped up its testing of the wells that are nearest to the Steamboat Road site after this spill was made public and that the water being pumped to people’s homes exceeds the standards set by New York State for acceptable drinking water. He said,
“Please know that we are being very diligent and are testing on a monthly basis…there is no MTBE in any of our wells at this time. The water coming into your home is safe to drink.”
Water within the aquifers moves, slowly, at a rate of one foot a day. Generally, the direction that water in the aquifer moves in Great Neck is west, northwest. If that direction stays constant, the plume of contamination from ExxonMobil, will not affect any of the wells used by the Authority. The most northern wells, closest to Long Island Sound, were closed years ago due to saltwater intrusion. However, if the direction were to change and the plume moved toward a working well, the Authority would need lead time, up to twoyears, to construct a treatment facility to remove the MTBE from the water. The wells that could be potentially damaged are not used year round; they are only used in the summertime.

The Department of Environmental Conservation’s lead engineer on the cleanup and remediation of the gasoline leak, Christopher Engelhardt, followed with a technical presentation outlining all the requirements that the DEC is exacting from ExxonMobil, the responsible party for cleanup.
He gave background information about MTBE. It was a by-product of the refinery process and became an additive to gasoline to make it run cleaner before it was banned in 2004 in New York State because scientists learned belatedly that if it reached groundwater, it would be a serious environmental problem.

Residents in the area west of the contamination site, raised questions about whether or not they should be concerned about vapors from the contamination coming up through their basements and into their homes.

MTBE is extremely water soluble. It is hydrophilic, meaning it has a chemical attraction to water molecules. Since MTBE “likes” mixing with water, it does not readily attach itself to soil particles as it flows along in the water in the aquifer. Therefore, all of the experts agreed that there is little likelihood that it would migrate into the soil and into the air.

The big task of the DEC is to direct the investigation to “map” the size, shape, depth and direction of the plume. Mr. Engelhardt showed the audience where the testing rods were drilled to determine the levels of MTBE at various depths. He said that the testing so far shows that the plume is “rather narrow, cigar-shaped” and in the Upper Glacial Aquifer. So far, testing rods drilled south of the site have not shown MTBE. Later in the investigation, permanent testing wells will be drilled. He said, “We’re going to make sure that we’re on top of this situation…we’ll track it.”

All of these expenses for testing are being paid for by ExxonMobil. They will also foot the bill if the Authority has to construct a treatment facility to take MTBE out of drinking water. Cleanup can run into millions of dollars.

Dr. Myers of ATC Environmental Group with 25 years of experience in site investigation, remediation, closure and reclamation for major oil companies spoke, but he is not directly involved in this project. Dr. Myers delved into various methods that are available for remediation; however, at this point in the investigation, there is much to be learned before deciding on which methodology would be best for this specific site. He reinforced statements made previously about the characteristics of MTBE. He added that sometimes plumes may degrade or may stop moving.

He explained how vapor extraction systems work and stated that the only area that might be affected by this specific leak and where there might be concerns would be the neighbors directly adjacent to the former ExxonMobil station.

One of the very positive outcomes of the forum was the direct communication between some of the parties involved in the investigation. Mr. Engelhardt suggested that it would be beneficial if ExxonMobil representatives could sit down with the DEC, the Authority and the mayors whose villages are affected, Kings Point and the Village of Great Neck.

Laura Weinberg, president of the Great Neck Breast Cancer Coalition, spoke of risk factors, not only for breast cancers, but for neurological diseases and certain birth defects associated with synthetic pesticides.

She urged that homeowners switch to organic products for gardening. Eighteen years ago she said that there was only one organic gardener on Long Island. Now, there are many more and they can be located through and There are also organic exterminators as well. Not only will the use of such products be healthier for our families, but harmful chemicals in pesticides will not work their way into the aquifers.

Ms. Weinberg said, “Sometimes all this information is overwhelming…so just start with one change in your home…the more you know, the more empowered you will be.” Some of her tips included never microwaving in plastic containers, eliminating the use of Teflon cookware (also present in microwave popcorn bags), switching to green cleaning products and airing clothes outside before bringing dry cleaned clothes into the house.
“Air fresheners …What a misnomer that is!” Ms. Weinberg exclaimed. “Those products contain formaldehyde and phthalates and can be very toxic for pregnant women carrying males whose reproductive systems can be damaged.”
The National Resources Defense Council also notes that these products can aggravate asthma as well. Alternatives to air fresheners are plentiful such as airing one’s home and keeping houseplants. Ms. Weinberg likes to use cotton balls dampened with vanilla extract to freshen the air in her home.

She suggested that women and men look for cosmetics and personal care products that are free of parabens and phthalates. Since the ingredients are listed in such small print on packaging, check the data base on cosmetics available online at which covers more than 69,000 products. As a rule of thumb, it is a good idea to avoid products with fragrances. The Environmental Working Group site also has information about safe sunscreens.

Ms. Weinberg had brought along numerous brochures filled with helpful information. The Great Neck Breast Cancer Coalition website at has a wealth of sources with links to organizations with specific information about healthier choices for homes and personal use.

President Pargol Khadav and environmental committee chairperson Michael Harounian thanked the panelists for their participation, the audience for their insightful questions and the Great Neck School District for the use of the Saddle Rock School.

SHAI is a multi-faceted organization that focuses on keeping the Persian community’s sense of heritage alive. In addition, the organization has reached out to form partnerships with other community organizations to promote alliances for the common good of all people living in Great Neck. This discussion exemplified their mission to reach out to the broader community for the common good. Our water, it belongs to all of us.


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