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Mired in the Superfund List; L.I. Site Reflects Problems Delaying Toxic-Waste Cleanup


George Oppenheimer, a 29-year-old student of restaurant management, took a break from bicycling to lay back in an abandoned field by Glen Cove Creek. He did not realize he was lying in a radioactive dump.

"I had no idea," he said, springing up in a single, alarmed bound. Behind him were the steel and concrete frames of unfinished condominiums and the debris of industry now stilled. "There weren't any signs."

For eight years, the field where Mr. Oppenheimer was resting -- a former landfill renamed Gatsby's Landing by the condominium developers -- has been on a state Superfund list of sites awaiting cleanup. To environmentalists, it has become a symbol of the delays that hamper New York's efforts to decontaminate toxic dumps. Risks to Public Health

The critics contend that in their zeal to get polluters or other government agencies to help pay for cleanups, state conservation officials often lose sight of the risks to public health in allowing the pollution to remain uncorrected during lengthy negotiations.

[ Similar complaints have been leveled at the Federal Superfund program, and a House subcommittee approved legislation on May 11 that would establish financing to pay for cleanup efforts without prolonged litigation. ]

In New York, in the eight years since voters agreed to issue $1.2 billion in bonds to clean up toxic-waste sites, only $257.7 million has been spent, according to the State Department of Environmental Conservation.

Critics say the state has a good solution it has seldom invoked: it can choose to proceed with a cleanup and recover the cost later in court if negotiations prove fruitless after nine months.

"We should prosecute the different responsible parties, but the public has several interests at stake," said Thomas A. Suozzi, the Mayor of Glen Cove. "The thing is to get it cleaned up and do the finger-pointing later."

The state contends that its approach is working. Benjamin A. Marvin, a spokesman for the Department of Environmental Conservation, said that steps were being taken to clean up 80 percent of the 561 known toxic-waste sites in the most serious category, and in 65 to 70 percent of those cases, the private companies responsible for the pollution are paying for the work, saving taxpayers some $1.5 billion.

"Anybody can find a couple of sites and say, 'Here the state isn't doing anything, and here's proof,' " Mr. Marvin said. "The criticism fails to point out where the state has done work on hazardous waste sites." Few Sites Being Cleaned

But the state's own figures indicate that only 14 percent of the 561 sites are actually being cleaned and capped, and plans for cleanups at another 14 percent of the sites are being prepared. The rest, 403 hazardous dumps, are being negotiated over, studied or cleaned on an interim basis, which means just enough to stem further contamination.

And the New York Public Interest Research Group calculates that 54 percent of the known or suspected hazardous dumps on Long Island, and 43 percent of those in New York City, have been awaiting cleanup on the state Superfund list for more than a decade.

Mr. Marvin said the delay in cleaning up Gatsby's Landing was unusual. On average, he said, it takes the state five to six years to begin cleanup programs at Class 2 hazardous sites, defined as posing a significant threat to public health or the environment and requiring remedial attention.

One thing is certain, however: With each year's delay, the 16,000 cubic yards of low-level radioactive sludge on Gatsby's Landing, along with the known or suspected carcinogens including benzene, chloroform and other chlorine derivatives, are leaching deeper into the groundwater, advancing closer toward Glen Cove Creek.

The state's own site assessment warns of the risk of airborne contamination and "possible contamination of adjacent surface water bodies which may result in exposure to recreational users." A Complex Amid Toxic Dumps

From a distance, Gatsby's Landing would seem an unlikely site for the upscale condominiums its planners envisioned. It rises amid the toxic dumps of deserted industries on Hempstead Harbor, several of which have been on the Federal Superfund list for years.

At the condominium complex's information center, now a mass of shattered glass and broken walls, glossy brochures evoke the tony North Shore estates of the 1920's and tout Gatsby's Landing as "the most stylish, elegant and altogether perfect waterfront condominiums ever built in Glen Cove -- maybe anywhere."

The City of Glen Cove, which had used the site as a landfill for more than 20 years, sold the 25.3-acre parcel to Village Green Realty for $1.1 million in 1981. It did so over the objections of Nassau County health officials, who warned that hazardous chemicals dumped there could endanger the eventual residents of the condominiums. The City Council approved the project to build 328 condominiums on the former dump in 1984 with the condition that no apartments would be built on the ground floor, in case methane seeped from underground.

Within two years, confirmation that toxic chemicals in the groundwater exceeded acceptable levels forced Village Green to halt construction. By the end of the 1988, Village Green and its backer, Old Court Savings and Loan of Maryland, had signed a consent order to correct the problem, Mr. Marvin said. Radioactive Waste

But in 1989 radioactive waste was discovered. It was traced to Li Tungsten, a defunct manufacturer of tungsten for light bulbs, high speed drill bits and artillery shells during World War II whose plant has become a Federal Superfund cleanup site, even though city officials said they had no record of the company's dumping material there.

The discovery increased the projected cleanup costs at Gatsby's Landing to $14 million, and by September of 1990, the real-estate company and its bank were in receivership, Mr. Marvin said.

"The court said there isn't enough money here," he said. With Li Tungsten out of business, the state had to look elsewhere.

The state asked Federal environmental officials to finance the cleanup, on the grounds that the radioactive waste came from Li Tungsten -- which the E.P.A. had already agreed to place on the Federal Superfund list. Slow Progress

Mr. Marvin's account of the four years since then shows the agencies moving slowly. In 1991 the state asked E.P.A. officials to add Gatsby's Landing, by then called Captain's Cove, to the Federal Superfund list. Five months later, the agency asked New York to forward all the information available about the site.

Providing the documents took the Conservation Department another 1 1/2 years. And in 1994, the Federal agency hired a consultant to independently investigate the site, Mr. Marvin said.

Richard J. Cahill, a spokesman for the E.P.A., said the consultant was undergoing a routine background check for possible conflicts of interest and would probably begin the investigation this summer. Federal officials could not automatically add the site to their Superfund list because the land was not adjacent to Li Tungsten, he said.

Mr. Cahill said his agency would probably not decide whether to add Gatsby's Landing to the Federal Superfund list until 1996 -- five years after the state first broached the idea.

He added that the state should have insured that the site was sealed and notices of the hazard posted while it awaited the agency's response. He stressed that the agency would remedy immediately any "glaring dangers" its consultant discovered -- like the open gate that allowed Mr. Oppenheimer to sunbathe. 'The Contamination Spreads'

The continuing delay worries Walter L. T. Hang, president of Toxics Targeting, a private concern that maps hazardous waste sites. "The contamination spreads," he said, "and the further it spreads, the greater the damage to the public health."

Such criticism is reminiscent of a 1991 state audit that faulted the Department of Environmental Conservation's Enforcement Division for allowing negotiations with polluters to drag on without any time limits and further faulted the lack of any internal system to rank the health risks of sites within each class. The department countered that its work was too complex for formal priority rankings and deadlines to be useful.

"In essence, department officials are asking the public to rely on their word that the inactive hazardous waste site enforcement program is successful," the audit said. "We do not believe this provides an acceptable level of accountability for this important program."

Responding at the time, Thomas C. Jorling, then commissioner of the Conservation Department, dismissed the criticism as "an unwarranted swipe at the most effective environmental enforcement program of any state in the nation."

But Maurice D. Hinchey, the Democratic Representative from upstate New York who as a State Assemblyman drafted New York's Superfund legislation in 1982, said the requirement that the state make reasonable efforts to get the responsible parties to pay for toxic cleanups has been subverted.

"It isn't anything that we foresaw," Mr. Hinchey said. Most commonly, he said, those asked to pay for cleanups have tried to widen the circle of potentially responsible polluters who, they argue, should also foot the bill. "And that confuses and confounds the process and allows it to drag on indefinitely," he said.