Editorial: Cutting water quality jobs doesn’t make sense

Long Island is known for cancer clusters, which many scientists are forced to chalk up to coincidence, mainly because it’s proven impossible to explain how so many people here are getting the same types of cancers, and at the same time.

From cellphones to microwaves to pesticides, food coloring, diet and lifestyle choices, the list of potential causes is indeed lengthy and seems to grow each year.

The one thing that connects us all, though, is the water we drink. It all comes from the same source, the aquifers found in the ground, some deep, some shallow. They’re often referred to as “sole source aquifers” because we have no reservoirs, lakes, streams or rivers to tap. And when your life depends on a single source of water, keeping it as pure as possible is not just a lofty goal, it’s crucial. It wasn’t always so, but in recent years elected officials and environmental activists reached common ground on this issue.

And yet, the county is considering laying off four employees from the nine-member water quality test well-drilling unit operated by the county health department. The resulting savings are estimated at $300,000 a year. That’s a big number, but it’s a paltry sum for a county with a budget in the billions. The savings could shrink if the county is forced to hire outside contractors to perform the work.

Consider that in recent years alone, members of this unit effectively called out the U.S. Navy, which was on track to do absolutely nothing to address the known plume of groundwater contamination flowing southeast from its former Grumman weapons plant site in Calverton. Some may argue the Navy even had the backing of the state DEC.

Unsatisfied with the Navy’s assessment of the pollutants — and its insistence that they were dissipating naturally as they flowed off-site — the Suffolk County drill teams tested the groundwater south of the site. What they found was startling: The levels of harmful volatile organic compounds reached were up to 500 times higher than state drinking water standards. Further county testing revealed the plume was even wider — and deeper — than the Navy believed. Since it ran so deep, it could potentially flow underneath the Peconic River, eventually reaching the Peconic Bay system and also threatening parts of Riverside, Flanders and Northampton, county officials said.

With some help from the media and elected officials, the Navy was forced to reverse course and is now set to treat the groundwater, with the first phase calling for the installation of a $2.3 million “pump and treat” system. A Navy spokesman vowed in 2010 that the Navy would not leave until all water in the area was returned to safe drinking standards.

In that case, the $300,000 cost of those at-risk employees seems to be money well spent. These jobs must be saved.

County Legislator Ed Romaine is drawing up a bill that would have all nine well-drilling jobs paid for by the water quality fund — which is funded solely by a voter-approved quarter-penny sales tax. If approved, the measure would move the employees’ jobs and their salaries out of the general fund. This is a common sense approach to solving this issue and a wise use of the all-important water quality fund.