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2016: A Look Back At Newburgh PFOS Water Contamination

WAMC, Allison Dunne

Four months following news of PFOA water contamination in Hoosick Falls in upstate New York, a Hudson Valley city faced a water crisis of its own. WAMC’s Hudson Valley Bureau Chief Allison Dunne takes a look back at the PFOS contamination issue in Newburgh that came to light in the early spring.

PFOS, a sister chemical to PFOA, entered the Newburgh vocabulary at the beginning of May, when the city manager declared a state of emergency after learning Newburgh’s main drinking water source, Washington Lake, had elevated levels of PFOS. The state of emergency was lifted the following day after the city switched to another water source, which was soon depleted. Then the state stepped in to assist with and fund the city’s hookup to the Catskill Aqueduct for a longer term, temporary water source amid the design and construction of a filtration system, which it also will fund. That’s due to be up and running in the fall of 2017.

News of water source changes came during the first public forum with local, state and federal officials in June. It was also when the first calls cried out for blood testing, including from Newburgh City Councilman Torrance Harvey.

“But no one has mentioned when are we going to get the people tested for free. When, where and how.”

As for the source, the state Department of Environmental Conservation homed in on the likely culprit and in August declared Stewart Air National Guard Base in Orange County a Superfund site. DEC Deputy Commissioner of Environmental Remediation and Materials Martin Brand announced the designation.

“Our investigations have identified that the Stewart Air National Guard Base is a significant source of the PFOS contamination found in Lake Washington,” Brand says.

Brand said the historic use of firefighting foam is the likely cause of the contamination. A second public forum brought word that the state Department of Health would conduct a free blood testing program for Newburgh. But the news raised more questions, such as just who could qualify for testing and how the tests would be measured. The forum came shortly after state Senate and Assembly hearings on the fallout from PFOA-contaminated water in Hoosick Falls, where officials and residents expressed anger and frustration. Dan Shapley is water quality program manager for Riverkeeper.

“We want nothing less for Newburgh than was delivered for Hoosick Falls or other communities where blood testing was made available to anyone who had been exposed and wanted to get that blood testing,” Shapley says. “That’s the test that the Department of Health has to meet here.”

More details came during an October public forum. State Department of Health Director of the Center for Environmental Health Dr. Nathan Graber clarified that the free blood testing would not be confined solely to City of Newburgh residents.

“We would like to provide blood testing to anybody who wants it. Anybody who has any history of expsosure, we’d like the testing to be open to them,” Graber says. “If we confront capacity issues with the resources necessary to conduct that testing, we’ll look to our federal partners to assist us with those resources.”

Blood testing began in November and will continue into 2017. Democratic Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney, whose district office is in the city, went for blood testing to raise awareness.

“So I hope all the residents of Newburgh, people who live and work here, will take advantage of this opportunity so we can get a good understanding of whether we’re dealing with something that should concern us or not,” says Maloney.

He also introduced two pieces of legislation. One is the Investing in Testing Act.

“So my legislation would set aside $15 million for a two-year study by the Center for Disease Control to understand better what the safe level of PFOAs and PFOSs are in human blood,” Maloney says.

The second is a companion bill to an amendment from U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand to require the Environmental Protection Agency to expand water testing for unregulated drinking water contaminants to all public water supplies, not just in water systems serving more than 10,000 people.

Turnout at the forums was low. State and local officials said they would work on making inroads. In fact, the fourth public forum was held at a church. Though some 3,000 households had signed up with the state for blood testing as of early December, there are about 30,000 residents in the city, plus those living nearby and others who study or work there. Michael Ciaravino is Newburgh city manager.

“We chose the Baptist Church here in the City of Newburgh that is our avenue into a whole section of our community that has thus far not attended many of our other forums,” Ciaravino says.

The EPA says studies have linked PFOS with potential health risks such as birth defects and damage to the liver and thyroid.    

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