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Following Water Issue In Rockland, Legislator Holds Informational Panel

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More than a month after Rockland County residents were notified that too much of a certain chemical was detected in the drinking water, the legislature’s Environmental Committee held a panel Wednesday on the topic.

The chemical trihalomethane, or THM, is a byproduct of disinfecting water via chlorination. It’s the first time, according to Rockland health officials, the annual average exceeded allowable limits in their county. Suez Water New York tests for THMs quarterly and results are based on an annual average. Two of 13 locations tested in February exceeded the 80 parts per billion federal Environmental Protection Agency standard. The two locations were both in the Haverstraw area, where one reading was 80.6, the other, 84.2. Suez Water New York spokesman Bill Madden says the company mailed letters to its 75,000 customers within the 30-day notification period after having received the test results March 3. Rockland County Legislator Harriet Cornell is chair of the legislature’s Environmental Committee and decided to put together a panel following community concern about the notification, especially with water contamination in the headlines from Flint, Michigan to Hoosick Falls, New York.

“I always feel that it’s a good thing to do to let people have the facts on anything that’s concerning them with regard to health hazards, or potential health hazards,” says Cornell. “So I created this panel of people that included people from the water company — Suez New York — someone from New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. We had two members of the Rockland County Department of Health and a scientist from Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory.”

There are studies that say decades-long exposure to THM can result in increased risk for cancer, miscarriages and birth defects. The EPA, though, says there are no causal links between THMs and human health effects. Dr. Daniel Miller is water supply program manager of the Division of Environmental Health in the county’s health department.

“We have had a very large number of calls, somewhere in the hundreds of calls from residents,” says Miller. “And they’re concerned primarily about the public health effects. So we’ve tried to answer those. We base our answers on the assessment that was conducted, or performed by the New York state Department of Health.”

He says the violation of the water standard was not an emergency, but understands residents were alarmed. Again, Cornell.

“People will often say 'well, what went wrong; a notice goes out, what went wrong,'", Cornell says. "And I say, we could also thank goodness that we have the testing requirements in this state that protects us.”

In addition, residents expressed frustration that their notifications arrived nearly one month after March 3. In the meantime, Madden says Suez is required to report the results of the next quarterly testing the first week in June.

“We’ve done some preliminary testing now based on the changes in the, the changes we made to address the situation and resolve it, frankly. And the preliminary results are very positive,” Madden says. “The company is very confident that we’ll be below the standard on the next quarterly testing.”

While not having identified a source for the elevated levels, the company worked to reduce the THM levels by using more groundwater and less surface water in the affected areas, saying that groundwater is less susceptible to chemical byproduct formation from disinfection. Stony Point resident and Rockland Water Coalition member George Potanovic says panelists did answer many questions about THMs, except one.

“And I think one of the most important questions that they need to answer is the source of them, what can we do better to reduce the number in our water so that we can actually improve our water quality,” says Potanovic. “And I think that’s the essence of the whole issue is not just to treat the problem afterwards but what can we do to prevent it in the first place.”

Part of the discussion did focus on prevention and water quality, as well as another concern among primarily North Rockland residents — brown water. One resident suggested that Suez do a better job of explaining why brown water comes out of the taps and provide more information to customers. Again, Suez spokesman Bill Madden.

“There were several residents from the North Rockland area which, by the way, I live in, that expressed concern about regular brown water,” says Madden. “We will consider those different communication vehicles that they suggested, among them bill inserts and Facebook notifications. So in that way I thought it was very productive and constructive suggestions.

One resident said she has brown tap water daily, and offered to bring the now clogged filters she purchased to Suez officials as proof. Legislator Michael Grant attended. Though not a member of the Environmental Committee, he wanted to learn more about the situation.

“One of my concerns was that there was a decision made to notify the entire Suez customer base in Rockland County of the problem. I think that was the right decision, a good decision,” says Grant. “When the problem is remedied or returned to normal is determined, I think the same cohort of people need to be notified.”

Some residents expressed the same, wanting to know if an advisory would be sent when the THM levels return to allowable levels. Here’s Miller:

“I think we absolutely will do that,” says Miller. “There’ll be some discussion here in the county about how to do that.”

He says there is no regulatory mandate to do this but, given the circumstances, believes such notification is necessary.

The same day of the Rockland panel, there was a blind taste test to determine the best-tasting water in Westchester County. The annual test was part of National Drinking Water Week and featured eight public water suppliers. Suez was a contender for the Village of Scarsdale but the Village of Elmsford emerged the winner.  

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