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Groups Want NYS To Take Further Action On PFAS Contamination In Rockland County

wikimedia commons/de:Benutzer:Alex Anlicker

More than 80 organizations are urging New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to protect Rockland County drinking water from PFAS contamination. It comes some seven months after residents learned the county’s drinking water, in several locations, was contaminated with PFOA and PFOS.

Peggy Kurtz is co-founder of the Rockland Water Coalition, which came up with a list of cleanup actions when the contamination came to light.

“Last November, Nyack and Suez water customers were notified that PFAS chemicals had been detected in our drinking water at levels that exceed state standards. The coalition began reaching out to environmental professionals and health experts to learn more, and what we learned was alarming,” Kurtz says. “The refrains we have heard over and over again from experts is that there are no known safe levels of PFAS.”

Kurtz says the coalition’s list of recommended actions has gone, for the most part, unheeded, so 84 Rockland organizations have written to Governor Cuomo demanding his administration take care of seven items.

“The demands fall in to three broad categories: comprehensive and safe cleanup; transparency and accountability; and stronger statewide standards.," says Kurtz.

The Rockland Water Coalition, along with dozens of local religious, civic and environmental organizations, plus schools and businesses, signed a July letter to Governor Cuomo asking that he eliminate PFAS chemicals from the water as quickly and comprehensively as possible; keep the public informed about the full extent of the contamination and cleanup; comprehensively test for all 29 detectable PFAS chemicals and publicly post the results; and identify polluters and hold them financially accountable. Kurtz acknowledges that Suez has been posting the results of its water testing but wants the company to test for double the PFAS chemicals. Tina Posterli is with Planned Parenthood Hudson Peconic.

“As a sexual and reproductive healthcare and prenatal healthcare provider, we are increasingly concerned about evidence linking high, linking high PFAS chemical rates to negative outcomes for reproductive health, fertility and pregnancy outcomes, including low birth weight, preeclampsia and high blood pressure for pregnant people,” says Posterli.

Another of the groups’ demands is to provide up-to-date information to healthcare providers and free blood testing to vulnerable populations, including women who are pregnant. Environmental and health officials say PFAS chemicals can cause a number of adverse health effects, including on the thyroid, pancreas and immune system, and are linked to kidney and testicular cancer.

On August 26, 2020, New York state adopted maximum contaminant levels for PFOA and PFOS at 10 parts per trillion each. A DOH spokesperson says, “Both Suez Water New York and the Village of Nyack are implementing approved corrective action plans to install additional treatment to reduce the levels of PFOA and PFOS below the new state standard.  Both of these public water systems are providing quarterly progress reports, and the results of their water sampling analysis, on their public web sites for their customers and the general public to review.”

The Suez Water system is the largest serving Rockland County. It includes some 60 wells around the county and in New Jersey, along with multiple reservoirs. More than 300,000 Rockland residents are potentially impacted. Suez spokesman Bill Madden says the company launched a dedicated web site in November that explains the water quality issue, outlines a remediation plan and includes progress reports on sampling work. Suez will install Granular Activated Carbon (GAC) filtration to remove PFOA and PFOS from the water. The Rockland Water Coalition is asking for safe disposal of PFAS from the spent carbon filters.

Madden says Suez communicated directly with its customers through mail, email and social media about the PFAS issue as well as co-hosted a virtual public forum at the end of June called, "What's Next For PFAS," which featured a panel of national, state and regional experts. New York state Department of Environmental Conservation Chief of Staff Sean Mahar spoke during the forum, and said an investigation into the source, or sources, of contamination continues.

Officials say the contamination in Rockland is widespread and at relatively low levels.  DEC is working with the state Department of Health, Rockland County Department of Health and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on the issue. A DEC spokesperson says, “DEC’s investigation of potential sources of contamination, including legacy cleanup sites, has not identified sources of contamination. We are reviewing the letter and will continue to work with community residents and other stakeholders on the State’s ongoing efforts to address these low-level detections in the Rockland water supply.”

Again, the Rockland Water Coalition’s Kurtz:

“Ultimately, this issue is like the issue of lead. There are no known safe levels,” Kurtz says. “And until we stop the production of these chemicals, we will continue to see more and more communities exposed to, a plague, this plague of chemicals.”

The two other demands in the letter call for regulating all PFAS in drinking water as a class at the state level, which environmentalists and others have been urging for some time, and supporting legislation to ban the production of PFAS in non-essential uses. Speaking for the Ramapough Munsee Lenape Nation, Owl Smith says the PFAS issue is important.

“It’s the latest in a long string of chemicals that we are putting into our environment and our water,” Smith says. “And it doesn’t take a genius or a medicine man to realize that what we put in the air and the water, we’re, we’re putting into ourselves.”

In addition, the Rockland Water Coalition and others are calling on Governor Cuomo to sign the Emerging Contaminant Monitoring Act, which would add 40 chemicals to the list of emerging contaminants. Rob Hayes is Director of Clean Water with Environmental Advocates New York.

“And so this legislation is really critical to better understand how much PFAS people are being exposed to in their drinking water all across the state,” Hayes says. “The state legislature passed this bill at the end of their session last month, and now it’s up to Governor Cuomo to sign it, to make it law, to finally jumpstart this water testing so that people know what’s in their drinking water and we can take action to prevent any dangerous contamination that might be out there.”

Democrat James Skoufis sponsored the bill in the Senate. His 39th District includes Newburgh, which has been grappling with PFOS contamination for more than five years stemming from the historic use of firefighting foam at Stewart Air National Guard base. Manhattan Democrat Richard Gottfried sponsored the bill in the Assembly. A spokesperson for the governor did not respond to a request for comment.

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