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Politico NY: Assembly schedules hearings on water quality in wake of Hoosick Falls crisis

By Scott Waldman, 2/10

ALBANY — In light of the ongoing water pollution crisis in Hoosick Falls, the state Assembly has scheduled hearings for April to discuss water quality issues around the state.

A bipartisan coalition of Assembly members wants to hold immediate hearings on the slow response by state and local officials to the situation in Hoosick Falls, as well as the extent of the pollution. The water in Hoosick Falls contains high levels of the toxic chemical PFOA, which has been linked to cancer and other serious health problems.

The hearings in April will focus more broadly on water quality issues statewide, which will presumably include aging infrastructure, said Michael Whyland, spokesman for Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie.

Whyland mention the situation in Hoosick Falls in the same sentence as Flint, Michigan, where government malfeasance exposed an entire city to lead poisoning in the city’s water supply. The spokesman later clarified he was not comparing the two.

“In light of issues at places like Hoosick Falls and Flint, Michigan, we are planning hearings in April to examine statewide water quality issues,” Whyland said. “These are hearings that would include our health and environmental conservation committees.”

Republican Assemblyman Steve McLaughlin of Rensselaer County, who represents Hoosick Falls, conferred with Democrats who chair the two committees to formulate the April hearings. While McLaughlin, one of the Capitol’s most outspoken critics of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, has already called for hearings, the support of Democrats makes the possibility more likely.

In a letter to environmental conservation chairman Steve Englebright and health committee chairman Richard Gottfried, McLaughlin said people’s lives are on the line and questioned why the state abruptly pivoted from declaring Hoosick Falls’ water safe to declaring the village a Superfund site.

“I’m writing to you today not only because the well-being of Hoosick Falls’ residents is in jeopardy, but I believe they are the victims of the biggest environmental and health crisis, and potential cover-up, that’s rocked New York State in the last decade,” McLaughlin wrote.

Englebright said he agreed with McLaughlin that hearings must be held and said they should examine possible governmental failures as well as the complicity of industry in using harmful chemicals.

“I don’t think it makes sense to only focus on just one site or one chemical or the failures of government alone,” he said. “I would like to explore … the larger implications and that would include how this and other similar contaminants got into the environment in the first place. That means looking at the source which industries did this insult to the environment, did they know, should they be held liable.”

In a joint statement, Englebright and Gottfried said they were troubled by the numerous contaminants in drinking water.

“Drinking water should be safe and clean. The recent events in Flint, Michigan, and most recently in Hoosick Falls highlight the threats to water purity and need to be scrutinized,” they said.

On Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan said he was open to hearings on Hoosick Falls, but wants to fix the problem first. Cuomo has said he wants more “facts” about Hoosick Falls, where multiple tests have shown dangerous levels of pollution, but has offered only praise for his administration’s health department.

For more than a year, the state health department assured residents of the small upstate village that their water was safe to drink, then abruptly reversed that stance after the federal Environmental Protection Agency issued a stern warning that drinking or cooking with the water was dangerous.

In the last few weeks, Cuomo and top administration officials have sought to portray their response as aggressive, but local residents and some lawmakers continue to criticize the extensive delays.