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NY Congressman Asks DoD To Investigate Newburgh Water Contamination

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A Hudson Valley congressman has called on the Department of Defense to investigate water contamination in Newburgh. This comes as an environmental group wants Stewart Air National Guard base and Stewart International Airport to stop water discharges in areas where a chemical has been found at high levels.

Democratic Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney has penned a letter to U.S. Department of Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, calling for an immediate investigation into the possible cause of PFOS contamination in Newburgh’s main drinking water source  — outfalls into retention ponds at Stewart Air National Guard Base in Newburgh.

“I’m not interested in recrimination or in pointing fingers, but I am interested in accountability so we know who the responsible party is so that we can rapidly transition to a permanent clean water source,” says Maloney.

A Department of Defense spokesman did not respond in time for this broadcast. Maloney wants the Defense Department to prioritize Stewart Air National Guard base among bases included for scheduled reviews. Maloney, whose district office is in Newburgh, says Stewart should be at the top of the list. He is asking the Defense Department to ensure total remediation for the city.  

“What we must not do is we must not make the mistake they made in Flint, Michigan, where the government got in the business of telling people not to worry about something that was actually dangerous,” says Maloney “Our first priority has to be the health and safety of the city residents. Would we give this water to our own children? My district office is in Newburgh. I work in Newburgh. My employees work in Newburgh. This isn’t some esoteric issue for us. They deserve to be safe. City residents deserve to be safe. And we must not get in the business of happy talking this or dragging our feet if there’s any chance that that water is dangerous.”

PFOS, or perfluorooctane sulfonate, was found in March after testing in Silver Stream and Washington Lake, the main source of drinking water for Newburgh, and revealed the beginning of May. The levels, at 140 parts per trillion, were below an Environmental Protection Agency threshold of 200 parts per trillion. The city immediately switched to an alternate water supply, Brown’s Pond. The state Department of Health and Department of Environmental Conservation, in a May 9 letter to Newburgh city officials, showed results of non-drinking water samples taken in March, where, in most cases, the PFOS levels are much higher than in drinking water samples. The highest PFOS level — 5,900 parts per trillion — was from a Stewart Air National Guard Base retention pond sample. A DEC spokesman says one focus of the investigation into the source of contamination is on this retention pond and surrounding areas to see if stormwater runoff is a factor.

Meanwhile, Westchester County-based Riverkeeper has sent a letter to Stewart Air National Guard Base and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates Stewart International Airport, calling for the immediate cessation of all discharges at the base and airport that have tested positive for PFOS. Dan Shapley is water quality program manager at Riverkeeper.

“We are calling on those entities to shut down that outlet from the pond so that all of those outfalls that have tested high for PFOS and are discharging into the pond will not be connected to the drinking water supply,” Shapley says.

Spokespeople from the Port Authority and the air national guard base did return requests for comment in time for this broadcast. Shapley explains the connection with Newburgh’s usual source of drinking water.

“Both the Port of New York and New Jersey and the Stewart Air National Guard Base have outfalls that channel their stormwater into this retention pond and then from the pond the waters  flows into streams and into Washington Lake, the drinking water supply for the City of Newburgh,” Shapley explains.

He says the base has a state permit allowing for stormwater discharge.

“We’ve seen in the permit that there is a strategy for controlling releases from the pond,” Shapley says. "So we are not engineers, we’re not coming up with an engineering solution, but we’re saying that it’s an imperative that that happen immediately and that a permanent solution be engineered to stop the flow of water between the pond and reservoir.”

Riverkeeper also is calling on the airport and the base to institutionalize a spill reporting system with Newburgh to assist in the protection of its drinking water.

PFOS is a chemical used in several products, including firefighting foam, and a DEC spokesman has said the investigation is eyeing whether such foam was used near any of the water sources around the time of the readings.

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