The Lawrence Aviation property has been an EPA Superfund site for almost 20 years. Once a turkey farm, then a factory that created products from titanium sheet metal for the aeronautics industry, the property’s future remains in flux.
But, there is a light at the end of the tunnel after two decades of remediation.
That light could come in the form of an LIRR train facility. If local officials have their way, the Port Jefferson line will be electrified and the Lawrence Aviation Industries site would serve as a rail yard for electric trains.
And, cleanup efforts at the site by the EPA are working according to plan, the agency told GreaterPortJeff recently. The agency plans to release a 5-year review of the site in February 2020.
A sordid past
While progress is being made but the site is still being cured of its ills; the result of unscrupulous activities by its former owner who crushed a stockpile of 55-gallon drums filled with toxic chemicals spilling their contents into the earth, poisoning the soil and groundwater. (In the early 1980s, the company decided to use a front-end loader to crush the barrels after the Suffolk County Department of Health asked it to come into compliance with various pollution control laws.)
That plume of chemicals crept its way from the property on Sheep Pasture Road to the Long Island Sound a mile and a half away.
In a video produced by the EPA, Sal Badalamenti, the agency’s section chief of its Eastern New York Superfund Program described what they walked into over two decades ago.
“When the State of New York called the EPA in on this, the site was quite a horror,” Badalamenti says in the video.
In a decision issued last spring, a Federal Judge found Lawrence Aviation’s long-time owner and CEO Gerald Cohen liable for the toxic plume and ordered him to pay over $48 million in cleanup costs and penalties. Cohen has already spent time in jail for his role.
To remediate the site and the toxic plume, the EPA built two groundwater pump and treatment plants and removed contaminated soil. The EPA says it will issue its second 5-year review of the effort in February 2020. The first 5-year report was released on July 20, 2015.
According to an email from the EPA to GreaterPortJeff about the report, the idea of the 5-year review is to “evaluate the implementation and performance of a remedy in order to determine if the remedy is and will continue to be protective of human health and the environment.”
The report will outline the EPA’s methods, findings, and conclusions, including any issues that were discovered during the review process and recommendations to address them.
A representative for the agency gave a brief update on the remediation of the site to GreaterPortJeff.
“We are making progress,” the representative said. “The groundwater monitoring data has indicated that the remedy is working as expected, contaminant levels in groundwater are decreasing over time and that the groundwater plume is decreasing in size since the implementation of the groundwater remedy.”
The EPA has a history of redeveloping Superfund areas with the aim of putting them back into productive use. The Lawrence Aviation property is a candidate.
“With respect to the cleanup of the site, the site is ready for redevelopment so long as any future redevelopment maintains the protectiveness of the remedial action at the site,” the representative said.
Across the U.S. there are about 1,000 Superfund sites in reuse today, according to the EPA. That is more than half the number of sites on their Superfund National Priorities List. The EPA keeps data on businesses at 529 of these sites.
In fiscal year 2018, those businesses generated $52.4 billion in sales, which is more than four times the amount the EPA has spent at the sites in remediation costs.
The question remains as to what to do with the Lawrence Aviation property once the EPA is done with its remediation efforts there.
Electrifying Uptown Funk
One idea that is gaining steam is to appropriate the site for an MTA train yard to support the project to electrify the Port Jefferson line.
“Money is being put aside in a long-range budget for electrification of the Port Jefferson line, a third rail, and a storage yard,” Port Jefferson Mayor Margot Garant said in a recent phone interview.
She said that billions of dollars are being earmarked for the next five years to start doing the underlying work to electrify the line. Garant said she is looking to get more specific information on the proposals from the MTA.
An electrified rail line might create more demand for housing in the area immediately around the LIRR station, both north and south of the tracks. This is important to the revitalization efforts currently underway in Upper Port Jefferson, sometimes called Uptown Funk.
Richard Murdocco is a public policy and planning expert who teaches in the public policy graduate program at Stony Brook University. From his perspective, an MTA yard would be a more appropriate use for the Lawrence site than any other option, like housing or mixed-use retail.
“The reality is that a former Superfund site doesn’t offer much flexibility in terms of options for redevelopment,” Murdocco said, adding that the MTA has needed a new yard at the terminus of the LIRR’s Port Jefferson branch for years.
“Electrification brings additional trains and passenger demand, both of which a new yard will help properly support. Given the limited areas for an unpopular use like a rail yard in Port Jefferson, Lawrence Aviation isn’t the worst idea.”
An MTA spokesperson said that a Port Jefferson branch modernization study is underway.
“We are looking at infrastructure improvements required to improve service,” the spokesperson said in an email.
The infrastructure improvements they are studying include electrification and potential yard sites, one of which is the Lawrence Aviation property.
The EPA said that land use is generally a local decision and does not dictate how remediated properties should be redeveloped, although that is a consideration for the end game.
“EPA factors redevelopment plans into our work at Superfund sites as cleanups progress,” the representative said when asked about possible uses for the site including a rail yard. “Any future development must be consistent with the cleanup and the protection of human health and the environment. “
With its toxic history, Murdocco thinks not much else can be done with the property.
“It’s really either something like that, or protected open space — but that doesn’t solve the issue of where to put a new rail yard,” he said.
Before anything can be set in stone, the Town of Brookhaven must approve the site plans.
Back on July 15, 2014, the Town adopted a land-use plan for the area.
“The Land Use Plan details land-use strategies, re-zoning recommendations and an overlay district that will guide future growth while preserving and protecting the character of the adjacent neighborhoods and returning the complex to an industrially productive and tax positive site,” reads a statement from Brookhaven.
Additionally, the new overlay district includes incentives to make the area a solar energy production facility.