New York State is suing six manufacturers of hazardous firefighting foam that contained the dangerous chemicals PFOA and/or PFOS. The lawsuit alleges that the foams used at military and civilian airports caused widespread contamination, including in drinking water, as in the case of Newburgh.
Governor Andrew Cuomo and Attorney General Barbara Underwood say they’re going after the manufacturers to recover costs incurred in the cleanup of these chemicals. Basil Seggos is commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
“The case itself argues that the manufacturers either knew or should have known that their products, when used as they intended to, would be dangerous to the public health, that they created a public nuisance, that they were not reasonably safe, and that the companies failed to provide warnings about the dangers of these products,” Seggos says. “And so we’re going to hold them accountable and we’re going to hold them responsible for the harm they created.”
So far, the state has spent nearly $39 million in cleanup costs, $38 million of it in Newburgh. The suit alleges that the firefighting foams once used at military and civilian airports resulted in PFOA and PFOS contamination of drinking water, surface water, soil and fish. The airports include Stewart Air National Guard Base in Newburgh and Stewart Airport in New Windsor as well as the former Plattsburgh Air Force Base. Newburgh City Manager Michael Ciaravino says the lawsuit is an important development.
“If the costs calculated, not only for the money spent presently, up to today, but into the future, are included in this, it would be a significant sum of money,” says Ciaravino. “So it’s for us, from the City of Newburgh’s standpoint, we’re observing what the attorney general has done as a very important next step in what we think is a pretty big puzzle with many different pieces.”
And he points to a recently settled lawsuit as a good reason to go after the manufacturers. In February, Minnesota settled a lawsuit it had filed against 3M, one of the manufacturers named in New York’s suit, with 3M paying out some $850 million to clean up PFC contamination. 3M did not respond to a request for comment in time for this broadcast. Riverkeeper has been working with the Newburgh community on the PFOS contamination. Cliff Weathers is the group’s spokesman.
“This is an important lawsuit because it seeks to hold polluters accountable for a product that has poisoned people and wildlife throughout the world, including here in the Hudson Valley. We have a city of 30,000 people where their water was contaminated with this,” Weathers says. “While we can’t speak directly to the legal merits, because I’m not a lawyer myself, I could speak to its moral merits, and it’s right, just and needed.”
Hoosick Falls in Rensselaer County has been grappling with PFOA contamination. Village resident Silvia Potter is with the New York Water Project. She reacted to the lawsuit in a statement: “Once again, Hoosick Falls has been forgotten. If the Governor’s administration was truly doing everything in their power to protect New Yorkers, they would’ve delivered on the promise made to us two years ago and we’d have a new water source by now.” Here’s Seggos.
“In Hoosick Falls, we’ve got a different chemical, different application. We have the companies there on the consent order. We’ve spent upwards of $30 million remediating the problem. We have absolutely not forgotten the people of Hoosick Falls,” says Seggos. “And our literally hundreds of staff that have been there and continue to be there are absolutely committed to ensuring that that community is protected.”
Seggos says the search for a new water source continues and is working with the mayor to set a time to discuss the matter with the public. Back in Newburgh, in August 2016, the state designated Stewart Air National Guard base a Superfund site, after finding that the source of PFOS contamination in Washington Lake, the city’s main drinking water source, was the historic use of firefighting foam at the base. DEC and federal lawmakers continue to press the Department of Defense to take responsibility and pay for PFOS cleanup at the base. Seggos has said all along he is not ruling out suing the Department of Defense.
“I think yesterday’s actions are actions are actions against the companies responsible for the contamination. There’s an indication that we’re ready to the mat against the DoD as well,” Seggos says. “We’re using all of our legal tools. We’ve got a great relationship on this with the attorney general’s office, and we aim to ensure that the public is protected and that the state’s not bearing the cost of all these contaminated sites.”
Ciaravino wonders why not go after the Department of Defense sooner.
“At the end of the day, are they too big to sue,” Ciaravino says. “At least the way the lawsuit has been framed, it would strongly suggest that the New York attorney general’s office finds it easier perhaps to pursue those folks that manufactured the foam rather than those that have been using it and spreading it around in our watershed for the last two decades.”
Meantime, U.S. Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer has written to Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, calling on her to immediately release the long-overdue Site Investigation Report regarding the PFC contamination at Stewart Air National Guard Base. Schumer expressed frustration at the slow pace toward cleanup and lack of clear communication and coordination with impacted communities.