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Wall St. Journal – Hoosick Falls Water Woes Draw Federal Scrutiny

By Mike Vilensky and Erica Orden, 7/7

U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand said Thursday she would introduce federal legislation to fight the water-contamination crisis in Hoosick Falls, N.Y., shortly after a congressional committee launched a probe into the state’s handling of the issue.

The measures mark mounting federal scrutiny of how Gov. Andrew Cuomo and other public officials have addressed the matter in the upstate New York community, located about 35 miles from Albany.

“I’m grateful the governor has done a couple of things,” Ms. Gillibrand, a Democrat, said in an interview. “But we need to do a lot more.”

In addition to the legislation—which Ms. Gillibrand said would include funding for research into the contaminant, as well as feedback from Hoosick Falls residents she planned to meet with Friday—she reiterated her call to the head of the Senate environmental committee for federal hearings.

The U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform has launched an investigation into the water contamination in Hoosick Falls, seeking information from Mr. Cuomo, a Democrat, on his administration’s response.

“It raises serious questions that the county and state would continue to assure residents the water was safe to drink even though the federal government had already warned residents to the contrary,” said the letter, signed by Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz and Wyoming Rep. Cynthia Lummis, both Republicans. The oversight committee sent a similar letter Wednesday to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

A spokesman for Mr. Cuomo pointed to a December 2015 memo distributed by the state health department telling Hoosick Falls residents they would reduce risk of exposure to the contaminant by avoiding the water supply. The memo came a day after the EPA said not to drink the water.

The governor’s office also said the administration would “gladly share our experience in New York to clarify the facts and the steps we have taken.”

Earlier this week, the New York state Assembly said it would hold hearings in September to scrutinize water issues.

“Pure water is about as fundamental to our inalienable right to life as can be,” Assemblyman Richard Gottfried, who will preside over the hearings, said Thursday.

Hoosick Falls, with about 3,500 residents, has been rattled over the past year by the appearance of perfluorooctanoic acid in its water.

The contaminant has been linked to cancer in studies but hasn’t been labeled a carcinogen. Health officials have said it may have infiltrated the water supply by way of a plastics plant in the region.

Mr. Cuomo late last year declared parts of the area a state Superfund site, classifying the contaminant as hazardous and authorizing its removal.

According to a timeline released by the Village of Hoosick Falls, county officials first informed the state of concerns about the contaminant in August 2014.

Mr. Cuomo has said he followed federal guidelines for handling the matter.

“States across the country have struggled to confront evolving information about PFOA…particularly in the face of shifting guidelines and the absence of regulation from the federal government,” a spokesman for the governor said Thursday.

In March, Mr. Cuomo visited Hoosick Falls and said the pollutant was out of the water. But his office said residents should continue to avoid the municipal water supply as officials complete their work. Later that month, officials said the water was safe to drink.

Residents have continued to express outrage, storming the governor’s Albany office last month and picketing until they were granted a meeting with a Cuomo aide.

Many residents have been given state-administered blood tests showing high levels of the contaminant. They have asked for public hearings on how officials have handled the crisis, and for more research into the contaminant.

Michael Hickey, a Hoosick Falls resident who will participate at the forum on Friday, said he considers hearings a formality at this point.

Still, he said, with federal interest, “hopefully other states across the country can learn from the mistakes that were made in Hoosick Falls.”

Ms. Gillibrand, now the highest-ranking New York official to raise questions about the Cuomo administration’s handling of the matter, said Thursday she was disturbed by news that a 6-year-old in Hoosick Falls had high levels of the contaminant in his blood.

Asked if the Cuomo administration could have handled the matter better, she said, “All of us could have handled it better.”

Ms. Gillibrand added that she doesn’t live far from Hoosick Falls herself.

“I’m like any resident, saying, ‘Should I have my children blood-tested?’ ” she said. “For any mother or father…it’s terrifying.”