2021 Community Leader of the Year: Kelly McClinchy

Imagine not being able to drink the water from your faucet or even to use that water to take a shower or brush your teeth because it is contaminated. 

And then imagine trying to get clean water extended to your neighborhood, known that it will be exorbitantly expensive unless you can get government grants to do so.

And then imagine still that one of the prime suspects for contaminating that groundwater IS the government.

That’s the situation that residents of Manorville and parts of Calverton have been facing for years. 

Over the past few years, Manorville resident Kelly McClinchy has become a spokesperson for her neighborhood, often speaking at Riverhead Town Board meetings or meetings with the Navy about how pressing the need for clean water is to her neighbors, stressing that they don’t care who provides it, so longer as it’s provided. 

For her tireless efforts, Kelly McClinchy is the Riverhead News-Review’s Community Leader of the Year for 2021.

“You picked a very fine person for this award,” said Ron Martz, Ms. McClinchy’s neighbor, who frequently works with her in the fight for public water in Manorville.

He said he had been calling for public water for 20 years, but efforts picked up steam when he and Ms. McClinchy began working together. 

“Where we live, it’s a terrible thing because there are high cancer rates,” said Mr. Martz, who is retired from the Suffolk County Water Authority. 

“I’ve never seen a person transform so quickly and so effectively in all my years of activism,” said Adrienne Esposito, executive director of Citizens Campaign for the Environment. 

She said Ms. McClinchy seemed quiet and reserved when she first met her. 

“Now, she has become a water warrior, in the best way,” Ms. Esposito said. 

The Grumman Corporation had leased land at what is now the Enterprise Park at Calverton from the U.S. Navy from 1956 to 1996, and Grumman in turn used the property for the manufacture and testing of fighter planes. 

The Navy retained 208 acres of land within the fence, saying it needed to be cleaned up before it could be turned over to Riverhead Town, as the Navy had done with the bulk of the property it owned on the Grumman site. 

The Navy admitted to causing the pollution inside the fence, but has denied bearing responsibility for pollution of private wells outside the fence.

Ms. Esposito said Ms. McClinchy “has a natural instinct about how to maneuver through political challenges, which is unique. She focuses on the issue and on achieving the goal of clean water for her neighborhood.

“As I’ve gotten to know her she clearly is a go-getter, she’s very funny, and she’s relentless, all characteristics I love. She’s not a showboat. She’s more interested in results.” 

Ms. McClinchy is a special education teacher, and she also is a member of the Navy’s Restoration Advisory Board, a community advisory group that meets four times per year to discuss cleanup efforts at the former Grumman site. 

Ms. Esposito said that her group had met with the Manorville and Calverton residents on the water situation and decided, “these people need our help.”

The Suffolk County Health Department had tested 95 private wells in this area at no cost to the homeowners in November 2020 and detected contaminants in 14 of wells, officials said.

While everyone agrees that public water is needed, figuring out how to pay for it is a bigger problem, with the cost estimate being more than $12 million for 128 homes, more than $90,000 per home. 

And while Riverhead Town and the Suffolk County Water Authority have argued over who should provide water to Manorville and Calverton residents, Ms. McClinchy and others have made it clear that they just want clean water.