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Officials Detail Actions On PFOS Contamination In Newburgh

During an informational forum Monday in Newburgh about PFOS contamination found in the city’s drinking water supply, federal, state and local officials updated the public on actions being taken. WAMC’s Hudson Valley Bureau Chief Allison Dunne has more.

The public learned of the PFOS contamination in early May after testing in Silver Stream and Washington Lake, the main source of drinking water for Newburgh. The city quickly switched to a different water source, Brown’s Pond, which it has since depleted. Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Water Quality Rapid Response Team and the New York State Departments of Environmental Conservation and Health have been working with city and county officials and have committed to fund the city’s hookup to the Catskill Aqueduct for the water supply amid the design and construction of a filtration system, which it also will fund. Newburgh Mayor Judy Kennedy is breathing a sigh of relief.

“I’m so glad that the state is stepping up and helping us,” says Kennedy. “If it weren’t, I don’t know what we would be doing because there’s just no way that the city could take that cost on. We just couldn’t do it because our citizens can’t take any more taxes.”

The state also plans to upgrade pipes, valves and other components of the City’s existing connections to Brown’s Pond and the Catskill Aqueduct to ensure that Newburgh can more efficiently draw from these backup sources. Martin Brand is DEC Region 3 director. He says the investigation continues into the source of contamination.

“The source of the PFOS contamination in the City of Newburgh water supply has not been fully determined,” says Brand. “However, we’ve been sampling since March. We’ve taken samples from surface water and sediment and stormwater drainage systems in the watershed and the tributaries to Lake Washington and we have enough data to indicate that certainly the Air National Guard Base and perhaps the commercial side of the airport, Stewart International Airport, are contributing some of the contamination to that watershed and that drinking water supply system.”

DEC has scheduled additional sampling for the coming weeks. The agency is also investigating the use and storage of firefighting foam containing PFOS in the areas around Washington Lake and its tributaries to identify potential sources. Environmental Protection Agency Regional Administrator Judith Enck commends city officials for having acted quickly. She underscores three aspects of the contamination issue.

“The residents of Newburgh deserve clean and healthy water every single day. We have that today; we want to make sure that continues,” says Enck. “Second, we all have to work together to find the source of the pollution and cut that off. Just switching water supplies is not a sustainable solution. We want to find out where is this chemical coming from, how do we stop it, and how do we make sure the polluters pay the full cost of cleanup. And then, third, EPA is always concerned about the Hudson River, and we want to make sure that this contamination is not diverted from a going to a particular water source and then heading toward the Hudson.”

And Enck talks about potential ill-health effects.

This is indeed a serious issue,” Enck says. “Studies show that exposure to PFOS can result in damage to the thyroid, damage to the liver, decreased fertility in women and low birth weight babies along with different developmental affects.”

PFOS was first detected and reported to the EPA in 2014 when samples ranged between 140 and 170 parts per trillion. These samples were below the EPA’s then-provisional short-term health advisory of 200 parts per trillion. When sampling in March confirmed the presence of PFOS, it was about 140 parts per trillion. That was before the EPA issued a new, long-term health advisory in May of 70 parts per trillion as the threshold.

Dan Shapley is water quality program manager for Riverkeeper, which has called on state officials to take certain actions. One concerns Recreation Pond, at Stewart Air National Guard Base, where samples taken in March showed very high levels of PFOS.

“So there’s a pond that is the major source identified so far. There’s a source behind that source that the DEC is attacking and controlling, and that’s critically important,” says Shapley. “In the meantime, we believe that there should be a remedial, interim remedial measure taken on that pond stop that pond from discharging into the stream that goes into the drinking water reservoir.”

In a letter responding to Riverkeeper, DEC and DOH commissioners wrote, “simply prohibiting said discharge without a thorough investigation of impacts is not feasible and potentially impacts other areas, including drinking water sources.” Nevertheless, DEC officials stress that their investigation to identify and eliminate contamination sources includes addressing discharges from Recreation Pond.  

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