Times of Huntington-Northport

Northport Middle School closes after decades of contamination concerns.

Northport-East Northport Union Free School District Superintendent Rob Banzer has decided, effective immediately, to close Northport Middle School for the remainder of the 2019-20 school year after P.W. Grosser Consulting, the environmental firm who has been testing soil around the school property, found on Saturday elevated levels of benzene in two separate septic systems on site.

Classes for the Northport Middle School students were cancelled for Tuesday, Jan. 21 and Wed. Jan. 22, and will resume on Jan. 23 in new locations.

“It is important to note that preliminary air testing indicated no observable detection of volatile organic compounds or VOCs, which includes benzene, inside the building, or from soil samples, as well as at the source of the septic tanks,” Banzer said in an email notice to parents sent at 4:00 p.m. Saturday afternoon. “However, in the best interest of students and staff and in consideration of ongoing testing and remediation, the building will be closed for the balance of the school year.”

During an unscheduled workshop with board members Wednesday,  Jan. 15, Banzer presented and reviewed a decisive contingency relocation plan for Northport Middle School students that ultimately became necessary to implement just days later.

The plan, developed with goals identified by all stakeholders, maintains the school’s curriculum, allows for spring sports, and enables students to access science labs. It was considered the best, least disruptive option.

As discussed during the workshop, transportation is feasible, but may require that some students change buses at the William J. Brosnan School building on Laurel Avenue. Additional drivers and buses might alleviate the need for transferring, Banzer said, but could be tough to secure.

“Although a great deal of the plan is already in place, we will need Tuesday and Wednesday to refine the logistics for staff and students, including scheduling, transportation and food service,” Banzer stated in his note to parents.

As explained to parents and reviewed in the Jan. 15 workshop:

  • Northport Middle School 8th graders will relocate to a special wing of the high school.
  • Northport Middle School 7th graders will relocate to East Northport Middle School.

Originally, Northport Middle School 6th graders were expected to be relocated to either Norwood Avenue or Bellerose Elementary schools.  But, as explained in a letter sent to parents Jan. 20, the district opted to keep all of the 6th graders together at Norwood Avenue school.  The gifted and talented program will instead be relocated to Bellerose

Suffolk County Department of Health Services requires that the site be remediated to remove the benzene. The health department also requires remediation for high levels of mercury and silver found in the leaching pools outside of the schools G-wing. Remediation plans are still under development.

Many parents have been conflicted about sending their children to the school. Students and staff have complained about unidentified foul odors that regularly surface inside the building. Some parents, retired teachers and community members blame chemicals previously identified on school grounds as a potential cause for their illnesses.  As the environmental investigation continues, some parents are breathing a sign of relief.

“We are happy to know that the testing can be completed with the children and staff relocated to safe locations,” said Bethany Watts.

Nissequogue River State Park, located on the grounds of the former Kings Park Psych Center. Photo by Donna Deddy

A piece of legislation that would have begun the process of creating a master plan for the Nissequogue River State Park was vetoed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) Jan. 1, putting the future development of the park up in the air. 

“The park described in this bill is the subject  of  recent  litigation against  the  park’s office  and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation,” Cuomo stated. “In light of the fact  that  the  litigation  addresses  an environmental review conducted by the State related to uses in this very park, it would be inappropriate to sign this legislation.”

The park, located on the grounds of the former Kings Park Psychiatric Center, has been a popular destination for area residents who enjoy hiking, jogging, bird-watching and accessing the local waterways via its marina. But many of the site’s derelict buildings prevent the place from being truly enjoyable. Many people find the old institution creepy. 

New York State lawmakers passed a bipartisan bill in June sponsored by Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport) and Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) that would have required state parks officials to begin a master plan for the park. 

“If there is any park that is in need of a master plan it is Nissequogue River State Park,” he said. “The pieces are already in place and were working toward that.”

– John McQuaid

The introduction of a master plan would have included input from residents, state agencies and other stakeholders. It would also include assessing park resources, outlining future goals/cost of development and allowing the demolition of a number of dilapidated buildings on the grounds. 

John McQuaid, president of the Nissequogue River State Park Foundation, said he was disappointed to hear of the governor’s decision. 

“If there is any park that is in need of a master plan it is Nissequogue River State Park,” he said. “The pieces are already in place and were working toward that.”

McQuaid admitted that he believes the veto may have been political, stemming from the foundation’s decision to sue the state park’s office and Department of Environmental Conservation over the siting of a DEC Division of Marines Resources building in the park. 

Smithtown, state and local officials including County Executive Steve Bellone (D) attended a rally Dec. 20 in support of the proposed project.  

According to Smithtown and county officials, the state project is expected to be an economic boost that would bring  in approximately 500 construction jobs, 100 permanent positions, plus the added year-round police presence in the state park. 

“We have never been against a DEC building on the property,” McQuaid said. “But we were against the location of the building, if we had the master plan process we could avoid this, everyone would have their say and input.”

The proposed site of the building would be in close proximity to the park’s marina. McQuaid deemed the location “inappropriate.”  

State officials who helped sponsor the master plan legislation were left confused about Cuomo’s decision.  

“The veto made no sense, there is an obvious need for a master plan. It feels like the state has walked away from the property.”

– Steve Englebright

“I am both shocked and disappointed by this action and feel like our community deserves better,” Flanagan said in a statement. “Unfortunately, Gov. Andrew Cuomo decided to veto this legislation instead of joining us in protecting our community, our environment and our way of life.”

Since 2006, Flanagan said his office worked with former Gov. George Pataki (R) to ensure the land is protected by halting the sale of land to developers, adding additional land to the park system. In addition, they secured over $31 million in state funding and worked with local leaders to ensure continued efforts to preserve and remediate the property.

Flanagan said he stands ready to work with all interested parties to see if they can reach an agreeable compromise on this important issue. 

“I continue to be optimistic that we can work out a solution, and will return to Albany in January ready to work to find an amicable solution that protects the residents of Kings Park,” he said. 

Englebright offered similar sentiments and was hopeful lawmakers would revisit this issue. 

“The veto made no sense, there is an obvious need for a master plan,” he said. “It feels like the state has walked away from the property.”

McQuaid echoed the state officials’ thoughts saying the foundation is anxious to sit down with the parks office and state officials so they come to some type of agreement. 

Previously, there had been discussions about repurposing park land for a sports field, a concert area and a community center.

The PFAS Action Act of 2019 (H.R. 535) would regulate per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances and assist local communities in cleaning up water contamination. File photo by Giselle Barkley

Water quality has been an important issue on Long Island as new containments continue to emerge. A piece of legislation passed Jan. 10 by the House would help mitigate a group of man-made chemical substances. 

The PFAS Action Act of 2019 (H.R. 535) would regulate per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances and assist local communities in cleaning up water contamination. 

“When it comes to our communities’ drinking water, there is no room for error,” said U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY-1), a member of the Congressional PFAS Task Force, in a statement. “With Long Island identified as the area with the most amount of emerging contaminants in our drinking water compared to the rest of New York State, all levels of government must act with urgency to help protect local families’ drinking supplies. “

The bill would also direct the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to designate the chemicals as a hazardous substance to prevent further environmental contamination and require cleanup of contaminated sites, set air emission limits for the hazardous substances, prohibit unsafe incineration of PFAS, limit the introduction of new PFAS chemicals into commerce, identify health risks by requiring comprehensive health testing and monitoring for PFAS in drinking water, require a drinking water standard for at least PFOA and PFOS that protects public health and provide funding through the PFAS Infrastructure Grant Program to assist local communities with impacted water systems.

Peter Scully, deputy Suffolk County executive and water czar, said the legislation is vital. 

“The new law is important in that it recognizes the urgency of the need for EPA to act quickly to address the potential health risks associated with these emerging contaminants, while at the same time acknowledging the cost impact of more stringent regulation on public water suppliers and, by extension, on people they supply water to,” he said. 

Scully added the law addresses the cause of the problem by requiring manufacturers to submit reports about how much PFAS they produced and by requiring the EPA to add pots, pans and cooking utensils that do not contain PFAS to its Safer Choice Program. 

“The bill could be a huge step forward in the effort to get ahead of his problem if it is fully implemented,” Scully said. 

 

Saket Navlakha

By Daniel Dunaief

Plants have to solve challenges in their environment – without a brain or the kind of mobility mammals rely on to survive – through strategies and computations that keep them alive and allow them to reproduce.

Intrigued by plants and by the neurobiology that affect decisions or behavior in a range of other organisms, Associate Professor Saket Navlakha recently joined Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory to study the processes a range of organisms use.

“Biological systems have to solve problems to survive,” said Navlakha. “The hope is that by studying these algorithms, we can inspire new methods for computer science and engineering and, at the same time, come up with new ways to predict and model behaviors of these systems.”

Navlakha, who has a doctorate in computer science from the University of Maryland College Park and conducted postdoctoral research at Carnegie Mellon University’s Machine Learning Department, focuses on the “algorithms of nature,” in which organisms evolved ways to solve problems that enhance the likelihood of their survival.

In his first three months at CSHL, Navlakha plans to do an interview tour, speaking with researchers who study cancer, molecular biology, neurology and plants.

While his primary areas of focus have been on plants and neurobiology, he appreciates that the internationally recognized research facility presents “new opportunities” for him and a lab in which he intends to hire four to six scientists over the next two years.

Adam Siepel, the chair of the Simons Center for Quantitative Biology and professor at the Watson School of Biological Sciences at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, led the recruitment of Navlakha.

In an email, Siepel wrote that Navlakha “immediately struck us as an ideal candidate for the center” in part because he is a “free thinker with an eye for interesting and important problems in biology.”

Navlakha believes processes and strategies that foster survival spring from a set of principles that helps them thrive and adapt. In 2018, when he was at the Salk Center for Integrative Biology, he wrote a piece for Wired magazine about species extinction. “By not preserving [species that become extinct], we are losing out on interesting ideas that evolution gave them to survive,” he said.

Even amid these losses, however, Navlakha recognizes the lessons computer scientists and engineers like him can learn. Through losses and failures, humans can understand the limitations of algorithms that only allowed a species to survive up to a point, as conditions pushed its algorithms past a tipping point.

At its core, Navlakha’s approach to these algorithms includes the idea that biological systems perform computations. He originally studied brains because they are “such an elegant computer, doing all kinds of things that modern, human-made computers can’t do,” he said.

When he was at the Salk Institute, he spoke with colleagues in plant biology who told him about research that examined how plants modify their shape amid a changing environment, which is what triggered his interest in plants.

One of the themes of his work involves understanding trade-offs. Doing well in one task typically means doing worse in another. He likened this analysis to investing in stocks. An investor can put considerable funds into one stock, like Apple, or diversify a portfolio, investing less money per stock in a variety of companies from different sectors.

“We’ve been studying how plants hedge” their bets, he said. The hedge in this description bears no relation to a collection of plants at the edge of a property.

A plant can create one huge seed that might survive a drought or other environmental threat, or it can diversify the types of seeds. “We’re really interested in understanding these trade-offs, how they hedge, and what kind of strategies” they employ, he said.

Ziv Bar-Joseph, a professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University who has known Navlakha for over eight years, suggested Navlakha has “deep insights.” 

In an email, Bar-Joseph described Navlakha’s biggest achievement as his work that shows how the brain uses a computational method to store and retrieve smells. 

“This work both solved an important mystery about how the brain functions and informed us on novel usages of an important computational method, thus contributing to both areas,” Bar-Joseph explained.

Navlakha doesn’t have a typical laboratory filled with beakers, pipettes or plants growing under various conditions. He relies on wet labs to provide data that he then interprets and analyzes as a part of the Simons Center for Quantitative Biology. While his training is in computer science, he has shown a talent for experimental research as well. 

Bar-Joseph recalled how Navlakha performed experiments and analysis. In a short time, Navlakha “was able to master very involved techniques and obtained very good results.” 

Navlakha explained that the work he does colors the way he sees the world. “People walk by plants without paying attention to the incredible computations that they’re doing to keep us on this planet,” he said. “Computation is the basis of life.”

A resident of Great Neck, Navlakha recently married Sejal Morjaria, an infectious disease physician at Sloan Kettering, who works with patients who have cancer. The couple met through an online dating app when he was in San Diego and she lived in New York. They chatted for a while without any expectation of seeing each other, until he traveled to Washington, D.C                                 for a conference.

Navlakha enjoys playing numerous sports, including tennis and basketball. He also played hockey. He and Morjaria participate in yoga classes together.

Navlakha, who grew up in Miami, Florida, said he had to readjust to life on Long Island after living in Southern California for several years. “San Diego makes you weak,” he joked.

In his work, Navlakha hopes to bring together two fields in a different way.

Given the importance of computations, Navlakha appreciates a corollary to the concept proposed by Rene Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am.” For Navlakha, “I compute, therefore I am” describes processes he studies among animals and plants.

Parents listen as consultants from an environmental testing firm explain their findings to date and their future testing plans at a school board meeting on Jan. 9. Photo by Donna Deedy

In the early morning hours of Jan. 10, at 12:35 a.m., after an exhaustive five hours of presentations and comments from board members and the public, much of it heated and emotional, the Northport-East Northport school board members revealed that they are in fact considering closing the Northport Middle School, not necessarily immediately, but in September 2020.

Declining enrollment and the Long Island Power Authority tax certiorari case, they said, are driving the decision. The site’s ongoing contamination concerns, they added, are an underlying factor. The decision, they noted, is still exploratory. 

A weary crowd welcomed the comment but still wondered what plan, if any, the district has in place, if the environmental consulting firm it hired, P.W. Grosser Consulting also known as PWGC, continues to find toxins on-site.

Superintendent Robert Banzer explained to the community that while the school has options, none of the choices are ideal. Split sessions, consolidation and relocating students to other districts that have offered space were mentioned as potential temporary solutions to a “code red” situation.

Board member Larry Licopoli asked the superintendent to outline a plan to present at the next board meeting. 

So far, PWGC has found unsafe levels of arsenic on a sports field and extraordinarily high levels of mercury and silver in a leaching pool 10 feet underground and just outside science classrooms in the G-wing. Mercury levels of 632 ppm were detected there. The county requires action at 3.7 ppm. 

The consultants said, when asked by parents, that they did notice an unusual odor in the building. So far, though, none of their air quality tests detected a presence of contaminants in the building that would warrant its closure. 

An Abundance of Caution

The overarching public debate of the Jan. 9 board meeting centered on the seemingly relative nature of risk assessment. 

After finding the toxic chemicals on-site, the district determined that it would close three classrooms, G-51, G-52 and G-53. Those three classrooms, the environmental consultants explained, were science rooms with sinks that drain into the leaching pool, where the chemicals were found. Odorless fumes could potentially migrate through the piping into classrooms, but the drain systems rely on P traps that prevent that from occurring, they said. While the results of air quality tests were completed, the district closed those classrooms out of “an abundance of caution.” Air quality results in the G-wing classrooms were later found to be normal. But many families said the cautionary closure didn’t go far enough. 

The consulting firm explained that building evacuation would be justified only after pathways of exposure were identified when unsafe levels of a toxin are found on-site. Since no mercury levels were detected in the hallways, closing other portions of the school were unwarranted. 

 The consultants explained that toxic vapors could potentially rise from contaminated ground under a concrete foundation beneath classrooms. So far, the consultants said, they have not found any unsafe measurements in the school building to suggest that vapor migration is an issue. Testing is ongoing. The consultants could not say how far or wide the high concentrations of mercury would be found. The G, L, K and H wings could potentially be impacted, the consultants said. If it’s under the building, demolition may be called for, they said. 

Some parents were outraged. The strategy lacked sufficient level of precaution for their comfort. As the investigation continues, they said students should be removed, since unsafe exposure levels might later be found. Some kids feared going to school while others resented their parents for not sending them. Many people said they could not sleep at night. The social and emotional effects of the situation weighed heavily on most people who spoke, including some board members and residents who recently bought homes in the community. 

No current teachers addressed the board, but a retired teacher did.

John Kobel describes his experience with contamination during Jan. 9 school board meeting.

“That’s the classroom that poisoned me,” said former science teacher John Kobel, who addressed the consultants during the meeting. “That’s the classroom I was carried out of and taken by ambulance to Huntington Hospital.”

Kobel said that he was diagnosed with heavy metal poisoning from mercury and lead and suffers from occupationally induced asthma. He said he witnessed the removal of contaminated soil 20 years ago, when contaminants were found in the same location. Kobel said that he has identified 48 teachers who are sick and 34 diagnosed with some form of cancer, 20 of them have died. 

Parent groups have identified 18 students diagnosed with leukemia, lymphoma and other rare blood diseases over the last 10 years. 

Parents asked the consultants if their investigation included reviewing the data of sick kids. They said “no” but would consider it going forward. 

“This is not my community, but I will fight if I feel there is a problem,” said Heather Moran-Botta, a representative from PWGC.

Consultants could not say where the contamination was coming from but speculated that it could be from improperly disposed thermometers. A remediation plan is being developed they said. Ongoing testing would dictate the scope of the plan. 

Several parents said that they were not sending their students to school under the circumstances. Board officials, when pressed, advised families that keep their kids home from school to call the absence “parent sanctioned.” They advised anyone with contamination concerns to discuss having their child’s urine and blood tested with their pediatrician.  

Out of the three potential exposure pathways — ingestion, inhalation and dermal contact — the most likely scenario that could impact students and staff at the school was inhalation, according to the consultants.  

On Saturday, Jan. 11, PWGC continued testing. Results have not yet been reported. 

On Monday, Jan. 14, parents held another sickout. The district did not respond to requests for information about absenteeism in the school, since mercury, silver and arsenic was detected Jan. 6.

Suffolk County Health Department said that school boards have jurisdiction over the issue, but noted that their toxicologists are answering questions from families in the community at the request of the state health department. The New York State Department of Health said that school boards ultimately have jurisdiction over air quality concerns. 

N.Y. State Sen. Jim Gaughran (D-Northport)has requested the involvement of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to help with the investigation.  

The Pier 1 in Commack is already promoting storewide sales. Photo by Rita J. Egan

Home decor and furniture retailer Pier 1 Imports announced on Jan. 6 that it intends to shut down up to 450 of its 936 locations “in order to better align its business with the current operating environment.”

“Although decisions that impact our associates are never easy, reducing the number of our brick-and-mortar locations is a necessary business decision,” said CEO and CFO Robert Riesbeck. “We thank our team of hard-working associates for their commitment to Pier 1 and to serving our customers.”

The company also plans to close some distribution centers and reduce corporate expenses, including a reduction in corporate employees. 

Pier 1 has 11 locations on Long Island. Although the company did not reveal which locations may close, stores in Commack, Huntington Station, Bay Shore, Carle Place, New Hyde Park, Riverhead and Long Beach were listed as having “storewide” sales where customers could “save on everything.” Those locations also said they could not accept store pick-up orders, “due to the unique nature of this store.” 

Stores in Lake Grove, Massapequa Park, Rocky Point and Freeport did not list sales. 

The moves had some investors wondering if a bankruptcy filing was imminent.

In response to an unprecedented number of customers visiting Department of Motor Vehicle offices in the five boroughs of New York City and on Long Island, the NYS DMV is now offering appointments for Saturday at several locations in New York including two on Long Island − Garden City and Medford. In addition, all offices on Long Island are now opening at 7:30 a.m., an hour earlier than the previous opening time. The announcement was made in a press release on Jan. 11.

“Just this week, we deployed additional staff to help with communication and customer service and saw an immediate impact,” said DMV Commissioner Mark J.F. Schroeder.

“We have seen a large reduction in the lines outside most offices, and nearly twice as many customers are receiving expedited service through Saturday appointments. We are continuing to make adjustments and hire more staff to further improve the service to our customers,” he said.

To prepare for the anticipated increase in customers, the DMV hired more than 300 new employees and are still actively recruiting new staff. Office space was reconfigured, new work spaces were added and flex space, like conference rooms, were converted to permit testing rooms to maximize the number of customers who could be served at one time. 

According to the press release, the DMV also purchased new office equipment and document authentication devices to help expedite license and permit transactions. If there is a wait, customers are being offered return tickets to come back to the office at a specific time later in the day so they can avoid waiting in the office.

The reservation system has also been upgraded and the number of reservation slots available to customers Monday through Friday was increased. 

Customers, especially those needing a permit test, are encouraged to make a reservation, which they can do on online at: https://dmv.ny.gov/reservation. Reservations can significantly reduce a customer’s wait time. To ensure customers are prepared for their visit, staff is proactively providing study materials, forms and other helpful information while customers wait to complete their transaction. Staff will also review a customer’s documentation to make sure they have what they need.  

The DMV also directs customers to use the in-office kiosks or the DMV website for any transaction that can be completed online.

For more information about DMV, visit www.dmv.ny.gov.

Macy’s in Commack is set to close this summer. Photo by Rita J. Egan

A week into 2020, retail giant Macy’s announced it is closing at least 28 stores in the next couple of months, including one in Suffolk County — the Commack store located at 2 Veterans Highway. 

The Hicksville store in Nassau County is also on the chopping block.

“The decision to close a store is always a difficult one, but Macy’s is proud to have served … the Commack community over the past 39 years,” said Macy’s spokesperson Bridget Betances in a press release on Jan. 6.

The chain plans to shutter the 210,000-square-foot Commack store this summer because its lease is being terminated by the landlord. A clearance sale is slated for May and will run about two months. Commack Shopping Center Associates has plans to demolish the building and replace it with a BJ’s Wholesale Club. Approximately 100 employees will be affected. 

Macy’s in Lake Grove, Huntington Station and Bay Shore have been spared for now.

Geoffrey Girnun hiking in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Photo supplied by Geoffrey Girnun for a previous article

Federal prosecutors announced Jan. 14 that Geoffrey Girnun, 49, a former professor at Stony Brook University, has pled guilty to stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars in government funds from cancer-related research grants.

At federal court in Central Islip, Girnun, of Woodmere, pled guilty to stealing $225,000 in those grant funds. The ex-professor issued fraudulent invoices for research equipment to SBU from sham companies he created to conceal his theft of funds from cancer-related research grants issued by the National Institutes of Health and SBU. Prosecutors said this went to pay for things like Girnun’s mortgage.

Prosecutors said Girnun faces up to 10 years in prison as well as restitution, forfeiture and a fine, which are all to be determined by the judge at that time.

U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York Richard Donaghue said the ex-professor is being held responsible.

“With today’s guilty plea, Girnun has been held accountable for his unconscionable scheme to embezzle for his personal use hundreds of thousands of dollars in government funds that were intended to help find a cure for cancer,” he said in a release.

The professor had been arrested in September last year and was charged in a seven-count indictment with theft of state and federal government funds, wire fraud and money laundering. 

Girnun was featured in a March 25, 2015, TBR News Media article. At the time, the researcher was exploring the role of different proteins that either promote or prevent various cancers. The one particular protein in the liver cell he was studying is one that classically regulates the cell cycle, according to the article.

Girnun discovered that the protein promotes how the liver produces sugar, in the form of glucose, to feed organs such as the brain under normal conditions. In diabetic mice, the protein goes back to its classic role as a cell cycle regulator.

Girnun made the move to SBU from the University of Maryland in 2013 and said at the time he was inspired by the opportunity to create something larger.

“I want to build a program in cancer metabolism,” he said. “I want to build something beyond my own lab.”

An attorney for Girnun did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

 

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Ward Tucker drives the lane for Harborfields in a 60-29 blowout win over Islip Jan. 10. Bill Landon photo

After a sluggish 1st quarter, Harborfields’ boys basketball team found its stride in the 2nd and pulled away for a 60-29 Tornado blowout over visiting Islip in a league V matchup Jan. 10. Harborfields senior Joe DeSimone led the way nailing four triples, two field goals and sinking three from the line for a total of 19 points. Sean Keys, a junior, followed with eight from the floor and a free throw for 17. Juniors Ward Tucker and Aidan Glackin netted nine points apiece, while adding two points each were Sean Dowd, J.J. Desiderio and Matt Torres. The win lifts the Tornadoes to 4-4 in league and 6-5 overall.

Harborfields retake the court Jan. 13 when they host Rocky Point and will hit the road two days later against West Babylon. Game times are 6 p.m. and 5:45 p.m. respectively.