Top Tags

Niagara Gazette: Hoosick Falls’ water woes lead to scrutiny for health officials

By Joe Mahoney,9/19

ALBANY — Residents of Hoosick Falls compare the water contamination in their village of 3,500 people with the crisis in Flint, Michigan, where lead-laced drinking water created a public health emergency.

State health officials say they’re doing all they can to help the village on the Vermont border deal with toxic chemicals in the groundwater. But residents and several state lawmakers are steamed, saying more people could have been sickened in the time it took the state to react.

“The lesson for all Americans here is that people need to know what’s in their drinking water, and know what state officials are doing to keep it safe,” said Michele Baker, an organizer of a grassroots group focused on the contamination. “New York state knew what was in our water and allowed us to keep drinking water with contaminants for months.”

 Baker said the pollution is the result of years of dumping harmful chemicals used in manufacturing — complicated by government inertia.

Hoosick Falls isn’t confronting lead, like Flint, but rather a chemical used to make Teflon non-stick coatings and other products. The chemical was first confirmed in Hoosick Falls’ water in August 2014.

Since then, one grim revelation has followed another about toxic dump sites and the health effects for residents.

The latest came this week, when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency put the Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics plant on McCaffrey Street on the federal Superfund list of most contaminated sites.

The EPA told residents last December to stop drinking the water — at a time when state officials were suggesting that it could still be safely consumed.

The EPA said groundwater at the plant is contaminated with perfluorooctanoic acid and the industrial solvent trichloroethylene. The EPA said groundwater supplying the village’s public wells is also contaminated with the acid, as well as vinyl chloride and dichloroethylene.

Perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, is used to make no-stick pots and pans, stain-resistant carpets, and water-resistant outerwear. It causes adverse health effects, the EPA said.

Water testing in the village and nearby communities confirmed local suspicions that there were plenty of reasons to worry. Samples showed PFOA concentrations as high as 21,000 parts per trillion at one site.

In May, the EPA issued a lifetime standard for exposure to PFOA of 70 parts per trillion in drinking water. Previously, it issued guidance of limiting exposure to 400 parts per trillion.

Residents and a doctor say the community has seen higher levels of cancers and thyroid diseases, though there is no estimate of the number of illnesses related to suspected exposure. Blood testing of more than 2,000 people found elevated traces of PFOA in more than half.

With lawmakers scrutinizing the state’s response – and Hoosick Falls residents’ vocal anger for not having been advised earlier to stop drinking the water – tensions have mounted between the Cuomo administration and EPA.

In an Aug. 30 letter to an EPA administrator, state Health Commissioner Howard Zucker and Environmental Conservation Commissioner Basil Seggos said PFOA remains “an unregulated contaminant” even though the federal government “has known of its existence in drinking water for more than a decade.”

“The EPA must provide clearer guidance about when a water system should be taken offline — or when bottled water should be provided — in the case of an exceedance of a maximum contaminant level or a non-binding health advisory level,” the commissioners wrote.

Zucker, at a legislative hearing in Albany this week, offered a spirited defense of his agency in the face of pointed questions. Lawmakers suggested the Health Department fell down in protecting the public when a fact sheet distributed to residents last December said their water was safe to drink.

On Friday, Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, D-Manhattan, chairman of the Assembly Health Committee, said the state’s health and environmental agencies will soon be prodded by “strong new legislation” to do a better job of protecting the public.

He said the state had not been “clear” with residents about the health concerns.

“The state should have clearly said that the PFOA concentrations in the water created real health risks, and people should not drink it. The science was well established years before the Hoosick Falls crisis erupted,” he said.

Zucker noted gaps in EPA regulations that helped create the crisis. The federal government only requires testing for unregulated contaminants such as PFOA in water systems serving at least 10,000 people.

He said the EPA also has responded to PFOA contamination in different ways, and created confusion by offering guidance that kept evolving.

Those lecturing the commissioner included Assemblyman Steve McLaughlin, R-Rensselaer County, whose district includes Hoosick Falls.

“Eighteen months and people weren’t notified,” he said of the state’s delay. “That’s a huge problem, Dr. Zucker, and you want to avoid it. But it’s a major problem for the people of Hoosick Falls.”

Zucker said his agency followed EPA guidelines and worked with village officials to lower the levels of the chemical in the water. New filtration has resulted in the lifting of the no-drink order for tap water, with testing showing non-detectable levels of PFOA.

Asked by McLaughlin why the department never set its own guidance level for PFOA contamination after saying it would, Zucker said the levels should be set by the federal government.

He said New York has about 2,700 community water systems and non-public water systems, such as those at schools, that aren’t required by federal rules to be tested for such contaminants.

Saint-Gobain, in written statement to lawmakers, said the Hoosick Falls area has had multiple manufacturers that used PFOA — going back decades before it began operating there in 1999.

The company also noted that it offered to pay for bottled water for all residents; it has paid for the design and installation of a carbon filtration system; and it funded the installation of treatment systems for those not connected to the village’s water supply.

Health officials said the state is putting $400 million into water infrastructure improvements across the state, while investing $300 million in the state Environmental Protection Fund.

It is also offering communities $5 billion in financing for drinking water projects.