Heading to the basement for laundry work has been part of Barbara Nagelberg's routine for 35 years; but now, the Copiague homeowner is uneasy about the trip below ground. Her concerns are epitomized by a small hole in the basement's concrete floor.
New York environmental officials drilled that hole as part of an investigation into a toxic plume beneath Nagelberg's house.
"You worry about, oh great, is this why I am chronically ill?" said Nagelberg. "Or why my husband contracted prostate cancer?"
The toxic mess originated at a now abandoned commercial facility near Nagelberg's home. An industrial solvent used in paint and spot cleaners called trichloroethane or TCA leaked into the groundwater there.
The plume now spans an area about four hundred feet long and a thousand feet wide and lies beneath more than a dozen neighborhood homes, according to Bill Fonda, a spokesman for NY's department of Environmental Conservation.
Suffolk county health officials first investigated the site in 2002, with the DEC adding the property to its "brownfields" cleanup program in 2006; but, nearly five years later, the plume remains untouched.
"It happened a long time ago and nothing has been done," said Jim Brady, who lives nearby. "I just want the truth."
Several residents in the community have contracted various cancers and unexplained rashes, according to Brady, who acknowledged he has no proof any sickness is connected to the plume.
Still DEC crews have conducted air testing inside at least five area homes and eleven test wells have been dug in the area.
"Contaminants have been discovered at a depth of six to eighteen feet below ground," said Fonda. TCA levels were about seventy to eighty parts per billion. The acceptable range is five parts per billion.
"Drinking water is not at risk," added Fonda. "But soil vapors could work their way into basements and pose a health risk."
A woman living in a basement apartment near the plume voiced her own health concerns as she walked her dog.
"You want it cleaned up," said Jeannette Rothstein, "because the longer it sits there, the longer everybody gets sick."
Why has it taken so long to deal with the plume?
New York's DEC initially worked with the property's owner to carry out the clean-up; but, according to Fonda, that property owner never moved forward with the job. Last year, the site was added to New York's "super fund" list, meaning the DEC would conduct the clean-up on its own.
To date, however, no clean up plan or timetable has been made public, increasing neighborhood fears that state bureaucracy and a lack of funding will delay the removal of this environmental mess even longer
"I want the building knocked down. I want the soil taken out," said Brady.