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NYS Assembly Announces Water Quality Hearings; Federal Inquiry Into PFOA Crisis Begun

a water drinking fountain

This week the New York State Assembly Committees on Health and Environmental Conservation announced hearings into examine the quality of the state’s drinking water and state government’s responses to contamination issues.

Changing course, Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said in a statement that the “recent reports of water contamination in municipalities across the state have highlighted the need for a thorough review of measures to ensure clean and healthy water in our communities.”

The hearings in Suffolk County and Albany this September come after months of outcry over the state’s response to the contamination crises in the Rensselaer County communities of Hoosick Falls and Petersburgh. The same chemical that has been found in those communities, PFOA, a believed carcinogen, has also been detected in Newburgh, as well as communities in Vermont and New Hampshire.

Republican Assemblyman Steve McLaughlin, who represents Hoosick Falls and Petersburgh, where PFOA was found in municipal systems and private wells, recently hosted a coalition of affected residents at the state capitol. Community members stood outside the Senate chamber and knocked on Governor Andrew Cuomo’s door. McLaughlin spoke to reporters Thursday.

“That’s pretty powerful stuff and that is the people seeking redress from the government. That’s exactly what our system is based on. They were being ingnored. They will not be ignored, that much has been shown. And they are not going to stop until they get the answers they so rightly deserve to find out what went wrong here,” said McLaughlin.

The initial PFOA testing done in Hoosick Falls was done by a local resident, Michael Hickey, on his own dime in the summer of 2014. High levels were confirmed by the State Health Department and U.S. EPA later that year. It was a year later, in November 2015, the EPA warned residents not to drink the water contaminated with PFOA, found at levels higher than the health advisory level.

PFOA was previously an unregulated chemical in New York and municipalities are not required to test for it. But many are wondering why state agencies did not act sooner. After outcry, carbon filtration systems have since been installed on private wells surrounding Hoosick Falls and Petersburgh and a temporary filtration system was placed on the municipal water system in Hoosick Falls.

In a statement released after the announcement of the hearings, Environmental Advocates of New York said the people of the affected communities “have now raised their voices to demand answers so that other communities don’t go through what they have. All New Yorkers owe them a huge debt of gratitude that hearings will be held and as a result, the necessary standards put in place to ensure that we all have access to clean, safe drinking water.”

A day after the announcement of state hearings on water quality, a federal investigation was announced into the state’s response in Rensselaer County.

The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform wrote to the EPA and Governor Andrew Cuomo seeking documents about the water contamination in Hoosick Falls.

Republican Congressman Chris Gibson praised the action, writing that “there has been a general lack of accountability as this situation was addressed and, to this day, my constituents are deeply concerned about ongoing health risks and delayed and confused responses by state and federal agencies.”

U.S. Senators Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand have also called for a federal investigation. Gillibrand was scheduled to host a meeting regarding the PFOA contamination crisis in Hoosick Falls Friday afternoon.

The Cuomo administration released a statement on the federal inquiry saying, "States across the country have struggled to confront evolving information about PFOA and other emerging contaminants, particularly in the face of shifting guidelines and the absence of regulation from the federal government.  We will gladly share our experience in New York to clarify the facts and the steps we have taken to address these challenges. We hope the end result is that Congress and the federal government act swiftly to prioritize and to implement uniform, nationwide regulations of PFOA and similar, currently unregulated contaminants. No town, city, or state should have to fear the water they are drinking.  With clear federal regulations, we can achieve that goal.”

Lucas Willard is a news reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011. He produces and hosts The Best of Our Knowledge and WAMC Listening Party.
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