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EPA Discusses Water Contamination In Hoosick Falls

Lucas Willard

The Hoosick Falls High School auditorium was filled to capacity Thursday night. Hundreds gathered to hear EPA Regional Administrator Judith Enck provide details about the chemical contamination of the village water supply.

"So what does this mean for you, the residents of Hoosick Falls, at this time? Do not drink the water  from the Hoosick Falls public water supply. Do not cook with the water from the Hoosick Falls water supply."

The reason is the discovery of a chemical called perfluorooctanoic acid, also called PFOA (or puh-foh-ah).

PFOA is used to make household and commercial products to repel substances like stains and grease. It's often found in non-stick pots and pans.

The chemical was found in high concentrations in the groundwater at the Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics facility in the village of about 3,500 residents.

EPA was approached by local resident Michael Hickey, whose father, a longtime employee at the chemical plant, died of cancer.

"And then one of our local teachers passed away in January of last year, so I started doing a bit of digging at that point in time. With the rumors about the water always being, I said ‘why not take a look to see if there's anything to it.’”

During his research, Hickey found PFOA was used in factory where his father worked. Studies have shown those exposed to high concentrations of the chemical are at risk of cancer and other health effects. Hickey's own sampling led to more studies by local and state government. What was found in the village water system is many times higher than the EPA health advisory level.

For the past several months, people on the village water system have been using a daily allowance of 5 gallons of bottled water for drinking and cooking, provided by Saint-Gobain.

Enck apologized to the crowd for their hardship.

"I'm very, very sorry that you have been going through this. I'm sorry we don't know how long you've been drinking contaminated water. I think it's good that this is all out in the open."

A panel of experts that included members of the EPA and the state Department of Health and Department of Environmental Conversation took questions from the concerned public.

Residents asked about how the chemical affects food grown in contaminated soil, if it's dangerous to bathe their children, and if a planned filtration system will be able to handle the amount of contamination in the water.

But there a lot of unknowns. Government agencies pledged to sample soil and study it. The EPA says there is a shortage of studies on human health effects from skin exposure and breathing the chemical in, though EPA belives showering and bathing would not give significant exposure.

The exact source of the chemical has not been found.

It can be filtered out of the water supply. Local officials are working to get a temporary filtration system in place in February. A permanent filtration system is expected to be completed by October. But the extent of how private wells are affected remains unknown.

Dr. Nathan Graber, with DOH's Center for Environmental Health, said the state will continue to expedite approvals for steps to clean up the water supply.

"In the future we'll continue to prioritizes our review of engineering plans for any changes to the village water system and any additional interventions that are put into place."

The state has begun an investigation of cancer cases in Hoosick Falls. Officials are seeking to add the contamination to the federal superfund list. A lawsuit is being considered on behalf of village residents against the companies alleged to have caused the problem.

As for now, there's no end in sight to the contamination issue and the full effects on the village remain to be seen.

Again, Michael Hickey...

"You know, it's going to be so long a process to get to, really, where everyone is feeling comfortable every day. Obviously our property values are going to be affected and people are going to be concerned about jobs . So that's unfortunate that we had to get to that point. But, obviously, everybody is here and it's about the health of the community."

Those interested in testing private wells call 518-402-7860. For more information visit:  www.EPA.gov/aboutEPA/Hoosick-Falls-water-contamination.

Lucas Willard is a reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011.
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