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Gubernatorial Candidates Discuss PFAS Contamination Without Cuomo

NY gubernatorial candidates debate at the College of St. Rose in Albany
Lucas Willard
NY gubernatorial candidates debate at the College of St. Rose in Albany

Four candidates for governor of New York excluding incumbent Democrat Andrew Cuomo met for a debate last night in Albany. The forum hosted by the League of Women Voters covered a variety of topics and several upstate issues. As WAMC’s Southern Adirondack Bureau Chief Lucas Willard reports, the candidates were asked about how they would address emerging contaminants.

Two-term Democratic New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is leading by a wide margin in the polls ahead of Tuesday’s election. He chose to skip the debate with his four challengers.

That allowed Green Party candidate Howie Hawkins, Independent Stephanie Miner, Libertarian Larry Sharpe, and Republican Marc Molinaro time just before Election Day to present their ideas and go after the governor rather than each other.  

It was debate panelist and New York Daily News reporter Ken Lovett who asked the candidates about emerging contaminants – such as PFOA and PFOS – that have tainted water supplies in communities like Hoosick Falls, Petersburgh and Newburgh.

“Citizens have been asking for New York to establish drinking water standards for these chemicals. Governor Cuomo established an advisory committee over a year ago but it hasn’t acted. How would you deal with the issue?”

Governor Cuomo’s Drinking Water Quality Council met last month but has not yet set maximum contaminant levels for the chemicals. State health and environmental officials are seeking MCLs and have expressed that need to the federal government. 

Currently, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has a health advisory level for PFOA and PFOS at 70 parts per trillion. Critics have said the number needs to be set much lower. Neighboring Vermont has an action level set at 20 parts per trillion.

The first to address the issue was Miner, the former Syracuse mayor.

She called the state’s response to PFOA contamination in Rensselaer County “disgraceful” and said she has long made water quality a priority.

“I have spent, as I’ve said, Syracuse is an old city and it’s cold, and I had a crusade about water mains. And I talked about the importance of delivering safe water at an affordable price and in an effective way. The governor came in to Syracuse and said ‘you fix your own state, I’m going to do economic development.’ He’s been a failure at economic development and he has failed at building infrastructure,” said Miner.

Libertarian Larry Sharpe proposed creating an “Environmental Victims Unit” within the state Attorney General’s office.

“It’s a unit that I want to create which actually allows the AG to prosecute people well enough so that when they make a mistake, when they do something wrong, when they break something, that they can actually pierce the corporate veil and punish the individual. We start doing that, you’ll see people begin to change on how they act. You’ll see less problems, less issues. You’ll see people become more afraid of that. What happens if we have problems now? I’m find with more standards, I absolutely am. But I also don’t want to take the time and the energy to just put all the money from us to fix these things,” said Sharpe.

In Hoosick Falls, the New York State Departments of Environmental Conservation and Health are continuing to investigate the presence of PFAS chemicals.

DEC has entered a consent order with companies Saint-Gobain and Honeywell, which have been linked to the contamination.  The community has been listed as a state and federal Superfund.

Republican candidate Marc Molinaro, the Dutchess County Exeuctive, called the fact that New York has not yet set new PFOA and PFOS standards “criminal.”

“The Departments of Health, both at the state level and the local level, need to be told that they have to enforce the law. And yes, yes. We need to direct appropriate dollars to help make sure there’s municipal water but at the same time, the polluters should be held accountable. I’ve been fighting with environmental groups for the cleanup of the Hudson River. If you pollute the water, you pay for it. And in the same respect, if we’re putting dollars on the ground, it ought to go to make sure that people have access to clean, drinkable water,” said Molinaro.

Green Party candidate Howie Hawkins said the current administration was late to recognize the water problems in Hoosick Falls. PFOA was first detected by a Hoosick Falls resident in 2014. DEC confirmed the presence of PFOA in village water supplies in 2016.

“And then this Water Council was announced, it was supposed to meet in March, it just met, I think, two weeks ago, finally, to start setting these standards. This is ridiculous. Look, I’m a candidate of the Green Party. This is a priority for me. For us. And we’re going to make sure the DEC is staffed and we’re going to deal with issues like water, lead, algae blooms in our lakes, and climate change – that’s the one that’s really threatening our civilization,” said Hawkins.

You can listen to the entire debate below:



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