Between 1950 and 1994, Grumman operated an aerospace facility in Bethpage, NY, that produced everything from World War II fighters to the Apollo Lunar Module, dumping a catastrophic volume of pollution into the soil in the process.
For five years, the company (now Northrup Grumman) has been fighting lawsuits claiming that the toxic plume it created resulted in elevated incidents of cancer in the area around the facility; and now, a new federal lawsuit led by Paul Napoli alleges that air pollution caused even greater harm.
Newsday Report – “A Fog”
As described in a revealing new Newsday report, Grumman’s massive Bethpage facility created what former resident and class representative Ross Matthews described as “a fog,” produced by emissions from 300 to 400 chimneys.
According to the plaintiffs, that fog contained high levels of hexavalent chromium and trichloroethylene, both known carcinogens, which are also at issue in the groundwater and soil litigation.
Prior to new regulations taking effect during the mid-1990s as a result of the Clean Air Act, air pollution was neither well-regulated nor adequately monitored.
By the time those regulations did take effect, Grumman was already closing the Bethpage facility as a result of its acquisition by Northrop Corp.
Consequently, clear data relating to air pollution wasn’t readily available, so the air wasn’t considered as a pathway for carcinogenic exposure.
However, in 2020, plaintiffs in the ground plume case discovered a 1987 filing the company made to the EPA showing that it had emitted more than 500,000 pounds of trichloroethylene and 300 pounds of hexavalent chromium into the air.
Given that 1987 was well after the plant’s peak production years, that led attorneys to suspect that toxic emissions were higher when the plant was busier.
In subsequent studies, they discovered that cancer risk for those living in the vicinity of the Bethpage plant was 760 out of 1 million, far above the 1 out of 1 million standard set by the EPA.
“I think we missed [it], and Grumman wanted us to miss” it, Napoli said.
It’s more than possible that the effects of air pollution could have been missed entirely.
During the years when the Bethpage site was most productive, there were no regulations on air pollution and no ongoing monitoring of its effects.
And while contamination remains in the ground for a long period of time, air pollution is transitory; today there are no environmental markers that would suggest which chemicals were in the air, or in what concentrations.
The company’s report, however, gives a compelling indication that the “fog” around the facility contained dangerously high levels of known carcinogens.
Class Action Lawsuit
And now that plaintiffs’ experts have made a connection between air pollution and cancer risk in the area, Napoli is leading a powerhouse team in an effort to certify a class action lawsuit with the goal of creating a medical monitoring fund.
There are challenges in showing a direct, causal link between toxic pollution and cancer risk, which this case—like any environmental pollution case—must overcome.
However, the existence of carcinogenic pollutants at the Bethpage site has already been established; the study setting cancer risk at 760 in 1 million followed analytic processes that are generally accepted by the courts; and the company has already spent over $200 million in groundwater and soil remediation at the site, demonstrating its culpability.
If successful, certification of the class could lead to further legal action, including compensation for the effects of ill health and for the reduction in property values caused by the toxic plume, which could push the company’s liability into the billions.
A ruling on whether to certify the class may come as early as the fall of 2022.