Community activist Mimi Pierre-Johnson and congressional candidate Carl Achille met with a small group of supporters on March 9, along the banks of the greasy gray waters of Elmont Creek. Their purpose was to call attention to the elevated rates of certain cancers in the community, still unexplained after many years of effort by community groups, and to urge more extensive tests
Nassau County is crisscrossed with creeks and drainage canals like this one, and it is dotted with lakes and ponds as well, from Bellmore to Freeport to Massapequa to Wantagh. Some are littered with plastic bags and cups like the creek in Elmont, so it doesn’t appear exceptional. And those who addressed the group were careful to stress that no causal links have ever been found between the creek and cancer in Elmont. But with some cancer rates at more than double those of the state as a whole, the group was calling on all public officials to redouble their efforts to find the cause.
Pierre-Johnson and Achille both wanted to see more extensive testing of Elmont’s water and soil. “This is something we’ve been living with and asking for, for years, Achille said. “If the problem is too much for the town and county to handle on their own, we may need the support of federal agencies.” The question is especially personal to Achille, whose mother was diagnosed in 2016, with inoperable lung cancer. “Now, though, when we most need their resources, [President] Trump wants to cut the EPA budget.”
Specifically, the group said they want wider environmental testing for the volatile organic compounds known to have been present in the area in the past decades, and which do not appear in any of the water quality reports that county officials say have been sent out annually since at least 2002, the first year for which online versions of the reports appear. At the same time, both Pierre-Johnson and Achille also stressed the need for wider screening among residents — a point underscored with equal force by county health officials earlier this month. Several types of cancer, including breast and prostate cancer, have high rates of survival if detected early, those officials said, and checking for genetic markers can help identify residents at higher risk, because some cancers — breast and colorectal cancers, for example — may have genetic components.
“This whole street used to be gas stations,” Pierre-Johnson said, pointing to Elmont Rd., by way of explaining the event’s location. “After the 7-Elevens stopped selling gas, they took the tanks out and said they cleaned up the soil. But we never saw any test results, and we don’t know if it’s ever been tested since they left.” The main thoroughfares in Elmont still are lined with gas stations. “They keep putting them up, one after another,” Pierre-Johnson said. “I use filters on the water at my house, but the water still isn’t clear. So it’s hard to know what ‘clean’ means.”
“Right now, the situation almost seems permanent,” Achille said. “It’s been an issue going back to the 80s.” He added that it was one reason he decided to contest the seat in New York’s 5th Congressional District currently held by Rep. Gregory Meeks, Democrat of Jamaica. “He doesn’t know this community and hasn’t been here on this issue.”
Elmont is in the Water Authority of Western Nassau County and sits atop the same aquifers as Jamaica. Until 2007, Jamaica’s residential water supplies came partly from 87 surface-drilled wells, according to the New York City Environmental Protection web site. Those wells have since been capped. All groundwater in New York City is treated with chlorine and fluorine, as well as a variety of other food-grade chemicals, according to the same source. These are commonly found in the water supplies of many cities and are judged safe by the EPA at the levels they are used.
Achille charged that some of the EPA’s safety standards have been relaxed since the Trump administration took office in 2017. To date, nearly 60 EPA standards or roll-backs have been, or soon will be overturned, according to a January New York Times report. So far, however, only two have to do with groundwater directly. Some standards were relaxed under President George W. Bush as well, but no evidence has yet been found to suggest that the list included Benzene or Toluene or any of the heavy metals known to have leached into the acquirer from the one Superfund site in the area.
“I’ve been trying to get answers for so long,” said Pierre-Johnson, echoing Achille. Pierre Johnson was president of the Argo Civic Association in 2010, when Achille was serving as president of the Parkhurst Civic Association. She ran for the State Assembly against Patrick Nicolosi and Edward Ra that year, in the 21st district. She lost in the Democratic primary to Nicolosi, another long-time cancer activist who has been speaking out on the subject for more than four decades. Nicolosi is currently being treated for medullary thyroid cancer. Pierre-Johnson then ran as a third-party candidate in the general election, on the Working Families slate. There, she was defeated by Edward Ra, who currently represents the 22nd district. The 21st district seat is held by Brian Curran. “After so many years of fighting and being active, getting nowhere, I finally just got worn out and had to take a break,” Pierre-Johnson said. “But I’m back and ready to get involved again.”
“The citizens of Elmont need to know more about these high rates of cancer here,” said activist Tamar Paoli. “We’ve been hearing for years that nothing is wrong, the water is safe, the soil is clean. If nothing is wrong, why are we sick? What about the planes that fly over every 10 minutes? What about the other sources of air pollution? If no one knows, why aren’t they trying to find out? We just want more testing, and we want people to be aware of the need personally for regular screening and check-ups. We want to get to the bottom of this and not wait for another generation of our friends and families to get sick and die.”