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Oneonta Daily Star: More testing looms in aftermath of tainted tap water

By Joe Mahoney, CNHI News Service (via Daily Star), 9/26/16

ALBANY — A string of water pollution incidents blamed on industrial chemicals is prompting calls for more money to detect whether New Yorkers are exposed to unregulated but “emerging” contaminants from their faucets.

Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, D-Manhattan, chairman of the Assembly Health Committee, said in an interview he hopes there will be “more funding for expanded investigation of possible contamination” in next year’s budget.

The influential architect of much of the health-related programs advanced at the Capitol said money is needed because small communities often cannot afford testing.

 “And millions of New Yorkers get their water from either very small systems or from private wells,” he said.

Gottfried and a group of other lawmakers recently led a series of hearings dealing with water system contamination in Hoosick Falls, Newburgh and Westhampton Beach in Suffolk County.

The main contaminant in Hoosick Falls — with a water system that serves 3,500 residents — is perfluorooctanoic acid, a chemical used in making non-stick materials such as Teflon.

In Newburgh, a city of 29,000 people, elevated levels of perfluorooctane sulfonate, a related chemical used for making firefighting foam, have been discovered in Washington Lake, the community’s reservoir.

In Westhampton Beach, perfluorooctane sulfonate was found in the groundwater this year near Francis S. Gabreski Airport, and state officials also suspect firefighting foam as the cause.

Both chemicals, state officials said, are among more than 80,000 contaminants not regulated by the EPA. The agency regulates fewer than 100 toxins linked to water pollution.

Contaminants of “emerging concern” are defined by regulators as those that have not been historically part of water regulation but have escaped into the environment from commercial and industrial activities.

Gabreski airport, Stewart Air National Guard Base in Newburgh and the area around the Saint-Gobain plastics plant in Hoosick Falls have all been declared state Superfund sites in recent weeks. The designation gives the state clout to pressure suspected polluters to pay for cleanup.

In the wake of the hearings, lawmakers are also expected to call for more intensive reviews of water supply reports so there can be a swifter response to contamination, said Assembly Environmental Conservation Chairman Steve Englebright, D-Suffolk County.

“We’re going to have to codify much of our activity with an eye on what the feds are doing — but not waiting for them,” he said.

The environmental group Riverkeeper was among the first to draw attention to the pollution in Newburgh. Its water quality program manager, Dan Shapley, said while state and federal laws already have strong water-quality protections, the system for protecting the public from toxic chemicals is porous.

Current technology is only capable of detecting “small fraction of emerging contaminants,” he said.

“We have a real problem in our country with regulating chemicals,” Shapley said. “We assume they are innocent until proven guilty. That allows a lot of guilty chemicals to enter into our environment and into our bodies for long periods of time.”

Federal rules now require water systems with more than 10,000 people to test for unregulated contaminants. Gov. Andrew Cuomo this month urged federal officials to change the rule so that the 2.5 million New Yorkers who get drinking water from smaller systems have the same protection.

In addition, Cuomo recently channeled $5 million to the State University at Stony Brook to develop new filtration technologies to improve drinking water and wastewater treatment.

But Gottfried, along with Assemblyman Steve McLaughlin, R-Rennselaer County, whose district includes Hoosick Falls, said New York should step up now to protect smaller water systems, in case the federal government is slow to change its rules.

Both lawmakers said the state should consider new standards for PFOA contamination that are more stringent than the federal government’s.

Vermont, California and New Jersey have already taken such a step.

“We are lagging behind while claiming to be this big, progressive state,” said McLaughlin.

A spokesman for the state Department of Health, James Plastiras, said his agency is adhering to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s guidance on PFOA and PFOS contamination.

“Unregulated and emerging contaminants are a national issue, and we believe there should be a national standard for these chemicals,” he said.

California recently listed both chemicals as known causes of “reproductive toxicity.”

Last month, New Jersey officials announced they would lower the allowed level of PFOA in drinking water from 40 parts per trillion to 14. The latest EPA guidance is 70 parts per trillion.

 Gottfried also said the state should use a cancer registry maintained by the Health Department to help identify areas that may not yet know the water is contaminated.

“If there is a higher-than-expected concentration of cancers in a given geographic area, it doesn’t prove there is an environmental cause,” he said. “But it certainly suggests you ought to look.”

While the Hoosick Falls water — with a new filtration system paid for by Saint-Gobain — has been proclaimed safe to drink, concerns over the health effects of years of contamination have not abated.

This week, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York, called on the EPA to conduct a public health assessment in the village near the Vermont border.

Meanwhile, New York officials have already executed agreements that hold Saint-Gobain and Honeywell, which also operated factories in the area, responsible for the PFOA contamination, Plastiras said.

Those agreements require the companies to determine the full scope of the contamination at four Honeywell and two Saint-Gobain plants, and to look into the feasibility of alternative water supply systems.

The PFOA contamination in Hoosick Falls was first confirmed, not by state or federal regulators, but by a resident, Mike Hickey, whose father, John, died from kidney cancer in 2013 at age 68. He’d retired from the Saint-Gobain plant just two years earlier.

Hickey said he had the water tested the following year, when a neighbor, math teacher Isabel McGuire, died from melanoma. She was 48.

“A lot of times the polluters blame the blue-collar lifestyle for these cancer deaths near their plants,” said Hickey. “But my father didn’t drink, and he didn’t smoke, and there was no rhyme or reason for him to become sick like he was.”

An insurance underwriter, Hickey questioned whether the recent legislative hearings accomplished much, other than embarrassing some bureaucrats for not having warned Hoosick Falls residents sooner of high PFOA levels.

He said lawmakers should focus on getting polluters to pay for blood testing and filtration systems needed to purify the water.

Hickey said he was pleased to learn that state officials are now pushing for regular testing of contaminants at smaller water systems, as well.

“They may not find PFOA or PFOS, but there are going to be additional contaminants out there because upstate New York has been industrialized for so long,” he said. “Hopefully, we can learn something from all this.”