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Politico: Hoosick Falls hearing turns into 5-hour grilling for state officials

By Scott Waldman, September 7

ALBANY— Wednesday’s hearing on Hoosick Falls and water pollution issues turned into a five-hour grilling of state health commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker and other officials who organized the state’s response to the crisis.

The hearings were intended to take a broad look at water quality issues across the state. And while they touched on Hudson River water quality, road salt runoff in waterways and fracking waste, they largely centered on the state’s response to Hoosick Falls, the Rensselaer County village where water was found to be contaminated by an industrial chemical, perflurooctanoic acid, or PFOA.

As he has done in the past, Zucker repeatedly pointed the finger at the federal Environmental Protection Agency for bungling the response in Hoosick Falls, accusing the Obama administration of issuing conflicting and “confusing” guidance on PFOA contamination. Unlike last week’s hearing, however, lawmakers did not let such statements stand.

They shouted at Zucker and charged that the state had made significant errors in its response. They said Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration had failed to protect people in Hoosick Falls and other communities and asked why officials had refused to admit even the smallest mistake, which they said could signal that future water quality emergencies will be mishandled.

Democratic Assemblyman Tom Abinanti of Westchester told Zucker he did not see any proposals from the Cuomo administration to solve water quality problems. He asked why the state could not raise water quality standards on its own, without waiting for guidance from the EPA.

“For you to come in here and say the EPA is the protector, I’m not sure why we have you guys,” he said. “You’re the ones who are responsible for protecting the people of the state of New York, not the EPA.”

Wednesday’s hearing, attended by about three dozen lawmakers from across the state, started very differently from a hearing in Hoosick Falls last week.

Democratic Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, the Assembly’s health committee chair, blasted state officials for ignoring information requests from state lawmakers for five months. He said that although the committee requested information about water quality issues from the health department in April, it received only a stack of meaningless data hours before the hearing started.

Democratic Assemblyman Steve Englebright of Long Island, chair of the environmental conservation committee, said the Legislature would now likely hold another hearing because the health department delayed its release of key information.

Gottfried made a point of putting all Cuomo administration officials under oath.

He pressed Zucker to acknowledge that the state could have acted independently of the EPA when it learned of the extent of the contamination in Hoosick Falls. “What is the department’s legal responsibility when it gets a report like that? What is its moral and professional responsibility,” he asked.

Some senior level Cuomo officials showed signs of the pressure. His voice cracking, Lloyd Wilson of the state Department of Health said he was “stressed” and encouraged those conducting the hearing to focus on moving forward. Wilson, of the Bureau for Water Supply Protection, said the state had conducted extensive testing in Hoosick Falls and other communities around the state where water pollution threatened public health.

Republican Assemblyman Steve McLaughlin, who represents Hoosick Falls and led the push for the hearings, had the most intense and direct questions for Cuomo officials. He told Wilson he had no sympathy for state officials who felt stressed, comparing their situation to mothers in Hoosick Falls and Petersburgh who worried about high PFOA levels in their children’s blood.

To cheers from local residents, McLaughlin pressed Zucker on whether he would let his own mother drink Hoosick Falls water for 18 months, as the state did before sounding a public alarm.

“There’s a game going on, you’re going to blame the EPA and then push responsibility on to the village, which is a small village, and meanwhile the DOH has continued to say, ‘we didn’t do anything wrong,’” McLaughlin said. “It’s distressing to hear that … I don’t think the members up here are quite buying that fact the DOH holds no responsibility in this.”

Zucker, his voice rising, accused McLaughlin of distorting the state’s response. He accused McLaughlin of failing to act as well, saying that lawmakers knew in March 2015 that a chemical was in the water.

None of the companies connected to the pollution, St. Gobain, Honeywell and Taconic Plastics, attended the hearing. Neither did the EPA.

Lawmakers also questioned how widespread PFOA pollution could be in New York state. DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos said the state is now exploring about 2,500 industrial sites where PFOAs may have been used at some point.

On Wednesday, the EPA declared Hoosick Falls a potential federal Superfund site. The designation opens up a legal avenue for the federal government to force the companies responsible for polluting the municipal water supply with a toxic chemical to pay for its clean up. The EPA’s determination, which has been expected, could cost the polluters millions of dollars in clean-up costs and set a national standard in other states grappling with similar PFOA pollution.

Also on Wednesday, Seggos and Zucker sent a letter to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator Gina McCarthy asking the Obama administration to conduct more thorough testing of water systems that serve fewer than 10,000 people.

The Cuomo administration said one-third of New Yorkers, or about 6.5 million people, rely on water systems that do not require the testing of emerging contaminants such as perflurooctanoic acid, which poisoned the water in Hoosick Falls and Petersburgh.

The state has already determined that St. Gobain and Honeywell, which owned the factory connected to the pollution, were responsible for the cancer-linked chemical. The state has reached an agreement for the companies to conduct an investigation into the extent of the pollution and to study alternative water sources.

Zucker came as close as any administration official has ever done to admitting a misstep in Hoosick Falls. After being pressed by GOP Sen. John DeFrancisco, he said a state fact sheet distributed in late 2015 that assured residents that “normal use” of their water was fine could have been better worded.

“That fact sheet probably could have been clearer for the public,” he said.

CORRECTION: The original version of this article identified Lloyd Wilson as working for the Department of Environmental Conservation rather than the Department of Health.