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DoD Commits To Interim Measure To Stem PFOS Contamination In Newburgh

WAMC, Allison Dunne
John Henderson, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force, visits Newburgh, Nov. 15, 2018

As 2018 comes to a close, there is a new development in the ongoing battle against water contamination in the Hudson Valley. Calls for the Department of Defense to address a continuing source of PFOS water contamination in Newburgh, New York, have been heard. Though the remedy is for the shorter term, critics say it’s a start. An Air National Guard spokeswoman calls the move unprecedented.

One month after senior DoD officials visited Newburgh for a public forum November 15, U.S. Senator Charles Schumer announced that DoD had committed to implementing an interim, remedial measure at a major source of PFOS contamination — outfalls at Stewart Air National Guard Base, at Recreation Pond. It’s the site of some of the highest PFOS concentrations found to date. The water here makes its way to what was the main drinking water source for the city of Newburgh — Washington Lake, where PFOS contamination was found in May 2016. Testing had shown that one of the outfalls discharging storm water into Rec Pond contained 5,900 parts per trillion PFOS, almost 85 times the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency health advisory limit of 70 parts per trillion.

Schumer says the interim measure is long overdue and was helped along via multiple conversations he had with outgoing Defense Secretary James Mattis and a meeting with U.S. Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson. A spokeswoman for the Air National Guard at Stewart says the senior officials who visited Newburgh in November heard the frustration about PFOS contamination unmitigated at Rec Pond and moved quickly toward a solution, albeit on an interim basis. She says the plan is for the Army Corps of Engineers to assess the site in early January and have a temporary filtration system up and running in the next 3-to-6 months. Dan Shapley is water quality program director for Riverkeeper.

“I guess, I wouldn’t say I’m totally surprised by this action only because, at that meeting, for the first time, when I asked the officials who came from the Air Force about this issue of filtering the water coming off the base, for the first time we heard directly from them saying, yes, we agree, that is something that needs to be done,” says Shapley.

In August of 2016, New York state designated Stewart Air National Guard base a Superfund site, after finding the source of PFOS contamination was the historic use of firefighting foam at the base. The spokeswoman says the Air National Guard will work with the Army Corps of Engineers to install storm water filtration equipment at the pond as an interim action to limit further PFOS/PFOA discharges into adjacent surface water while working on a long-term solution. She says the federal government will pick up the tab for the $2 million-to-$3 million system. Martin Brand is state Department of Environmental Conservation Deputy Commissioner for Environmental Remediation and Materials Management.

“New York has been a constant presence in the Newburgh community since contamination was discovered in 2016, and we have continually pressed the federal government to act and clean up their mess,” says Brand. “This interim action by the Department of Defense is the result of our constant pressure, and an important first step to clean up the site. DoD must still develop a comprehensive cleanup plan for the Air Base, and DEC will review work plans developed by DOD and the Army Corps of Engineers to ensure that the treatment system on Recreation Pond meets acceptable standards and enables Washington Lake to be flushed with clean water to reduce contamination.”  

Brand in 2017 said they had performed investigations at Rec Pond to develop some of the engineering parameters to possibly come up with an interim solution, like temporary filtration, but was hoping to get the Department of Defense to step up and take charge. And now that appears to be happening. Again, Riverkeeper’s Shapley:

“So we have a time frame to hold the Department of Defense accountable for, and we intend to do that,” says Shapley.

He adds:

“This is a short-term solution and we’ve always framed it as such, which is part of the frustration that it’s taken two-and-a-half years. So we also need to see steps moving along towards the comprehensive long-term cleanup that’s needed because we can’t rest on this,” Shapley says. “This is necessary but it’s not sufficient.”

Meantime, the state funded and constructed a $25 million carbon filtration system that is not yet in use for Washington Lake. The city has been on the Catskill Aqueduct for its drinking water since 2016. Critics have said filtering Washington Lake water that is still on the receiving end of PFOS-laden discharges from the base makes no sense while state officials remain confident the system, custom built for Newburgh, can address filtration needs, and for both long- and short-chain PFCs, or perflourinated chemicals.

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